The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq is the closest thing we have seen to a full history of the Iraq war, from its murky conceptual beginnings through the Bush administration’s still-unexplained failures of planning, up to Iraq’s present status as a quasi-quagmire with an unknowable future. Much of Packer’s reporting in this book has appeared previously in his long articles in The New Yorker, some of it word for word. But we are lucky to have it back in book form: Packer’s tales of Kurdish grievances over Kirkuk, and of his life among occupied Iraqis as their hopes are dashed, are among the most brilliant and evocative accounts of the Iraq war. Packer avoids the pitfalls of the usual reporter’s book–which are typically collections of stories or notebook dumps–in part because of his skill as a narrator but also because The Assassins’ Gate has a timeless theme: the often heart-wrenching and deadly difference between “abstract terms and concrete realities.” “Between them,” Packer writes, “lies a distance even greater than the eight thousand miles from Washington to Baghdad.”

Packer begins and ends the book with the ultimate abstract dreamer, his friend Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi exile who is in a way the book’s protagonist. We first meet Makiya well before the war, in Cambridge, Mass., in the 1990s, when regime change is still just a gleam in his eye and Packer seeks him out. Writing pseudonymously as Samir al-Khalil, Makiya first alerted the world to the savagery of Saddam’s regime when he published Republic of Fear in the late 1980s. Packer’s conversations over coffee with the obsessive but endearing Makiya, he says, turned the dream of a new Iraq into a real issue for him. Packer then moves to Brooklyn, where in the runup to the war he bumps, Zelig-like, into liberal intellectual Paul Berman while Berman is wrestling with “a fierce and solitary intensity” over the issue of how to tie the Ba’athism of Saddam together intellectually with the Islamism of Sayyid Qutb.

He begins to sense signs of trouble. We next find Packer in London as Iraqi exiles try to piece together a postwar government at the Hilton Metropole. He watches in dismay as Makiya’s hopes for a postwar plan are torn apart in a chaotic power grab, and his fellow Iraqis brand him an out-of-touch naf. Meanwhile back home, Dick Cheney is citing Makiya to Tim Russert as one of the Iraqis who has assured him that Americans will “be greeted as liberators.”

Then, Packer actually goes to war, and the contrast between the hopeful ideas of his friends and what he finds in Iraq is even more devastating. Watching the tragedy of errors that is the U.S. occupation is like watching a train crash in slow motion when one is powerless to stop it. We’ve heard this ugly tale many times before, but Packer reports it better than anyone else: The administration’s fanciful notion that democracy would somehow be a panacea; its hubris in talking grandly of Iraq’s future, then making no plans at all for it; Donald Rumsfeld’s profound lack of interest in anything that smacked of peacekeeping or nation-building, and his arrogant state of denial over the insurgency (“Stuff happens,” he notoriously says); the inexplicable failure of Paul Wolfowitz, who at least believed in the neocon vision, to make sure it got done in Iraq. (“He had been pursuing this white whale for years, and he had everything to lose if Iraq went wrong,” Packer writes. “Why, then, did he find it all so hard to imagine?”)

No one escapes whipping here, least of all George W. Bush, whose level of planning involvement is apparently confined to a pathetic line he delivers to Condoleezza Rice in January 2003. According to Packer: “Bush turned to Rice and said, ‘A humanitarian army is going to follow our army into Iraq, right?’ Right, Rice affirmed, but she glanced down in a way that suggested she knew how inadequate the answer was.” Later, as things came undone, Bush wasn’t one for late-night visits to the Situation Room, like the heart-sick Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam: “Not knowing was part of the strategy for victory,” Packer writes. “Bush never seemed to be a president under siege. It went wrong only when he missed a detail like the postwar plan.”

Back in Iraq, meanwhile, the rumpled, absent-minded Makiya keeps cropping up in the narrative, a case study in how visionaries can ignore reality even when it is blowing up around them. “I wanted him to acknowledge that the present was a disaster,” Packer says. “Phrases like ‘tolerant civil society’ and ‘liberal democratic culture’ did not inspire me in Baghdad in the summer of 2003.” But Packer begins to understand just how little Makiya really knew his own country before, spinning out his dreams in a Cambridge coffee house, and how little he understands it now, ensconced in the Green Zone. “The returned exiles in Baghdad lived in a world apart,” Packer writes. “The event that had crashed like a bomb in the lives of other Iraqis, shattering the state and leaving them stunned in the smoke and debris, was to the exiles the opportunity of a lifetime and the fulfillment of a dream.”

It is a powerful story of disillusionment. But in the end, the George Packer who sat across the caf table from Makiya and Berman–wary of their abstractions but still half under their spell–is never fully reconciled with the Packer who tastes the acrid reality of war on the streets of Baghdad and the villages of Iraq. When it comes to judging the misbegotten war he has reported on so exhaustively, he hesitates. His enduring affection for Makiya and other pro-war intellectuals–and his obvious empathy for fathers who are hoping to find some meaning in their sons’ deaths, like Chris Frosheiser–keep him from having the courage of his own convictions as a reporter.

This moral skittishness over the biggest strategic issue of all–whether the war should have been fought–is the greatest disappointment of The Assassins’ Gate. With all of his visceral experience, Packer cannot free himself, finally, of the romance of this “war of choice” for democracy. He writes, with curious logic, that “since America’s fate is now tied to Iraq’s, it might be years or even decades before the wisdom of the war can finally be judged.” There is something discordant in this line, which comes late in the book. It isn’t worthy of him. Until now, Packer has been clear-eyed and sharply judgmental about the failures of the occupation. One feels that his reluctance to be the same way about the war itself is mainly an act of courtesy to Makiya and Iraqi friends like Aseel, the irrepressible young woman in Baghdad who hungers for global connectedness and asks, “Do you think my dreams will come true?” And it is finally a gift of grace to Chris Frosheiser, whose emails to Packer are heart-breaking: “American lives have been lost, precious lives, for what?” the father writes. “Can something be achieved that is worthy of the sacrifice?”

Packer clearly yearns for the answer to be yes. He is correct to say that America’s fate is tied to Iraq’s. And that perhaps in the end, this unfolding disaster will, somehow, turn out all right. But why should that prevent us from passing judgment now on whether the war should have been launched? “There was no immediate threat from Iraq, no grave and gathering danger. The war could have waited,” Packer admits. But in the next sentence he concludes, again with an odd leap of logic, “Who has the right to say whether it was worth it?”

Well, we do, the American people. Packer struggles honestly and sometimes movingly with his own support for the war. He tries to locate his own feelings in the intellectual lineage of the neocon tradition, which he adequately traces (getting a few facts wrong along the way, like identifying the truculent John Bolton as a neocon when Bolton is in fact a libertarian who despises the neocons). He invokes Robert Kagan and the Straussians, with their strange, gauzy ideas about advancing liberalism under cover; he places himself among the liberal hawks and identifies with their pedantic efforts to fit Iraq into the interventions of the 1990s.

But while searching for his “inner Churchill,” Packer misses the elephant in the room: the fact that the “war on terror” was mainly about the terrorists. It was, in other words, about al Qaeda, the ones that actually hit us on 9/11. Packer pays surprisingly little attention to this issue–except when he invokes, with some skepticism, Paul Berman’s grandiose notion that bin Laden’s Islamism and Saddam’s Ba’athism were the same enemy because they were both “Muslim totalitarianisms” (a concept that may be valid in the long run, measured in decades or centuries, but which bore little relevance to the task at hand).

“In the midst of this din, it was hard to think clearly,” Packer writes. He sums up his views in somewhat garbled fashion, allowing that “more than anyone else, Kanan Makiya guided my thinking.” “I belonged to the tiny, insignificant camp of ambivalently pro-war liberals,” Packer says. “This position descended from the interventions of the last decade in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The Iraq War was about something other than human rights and democracy, but it could bring similar benefits. I wanted Iraqis to be let out of prison; I wanted to see a homicidal dictator removed from power before he committed mass murder again; I wanted to see if an open society stood a chance of taking root in the heart of the Arab world.”

Is this why America started a war of choice against Iraq in the middle of a war of necessity against al Qaeda? We concocted a new war that sapped our military, our credibility, our economy, our morale, and our moral standing; cost thousands of men and women their lives and limbs; alienated much of the world; and diverted our attention from destroying the chief culprit of 9/11–all in an effort to “see if an open society stood a chance” in the Arab world? Of course, it wasn’t the reason. Nor would any American president ever use such a rationale to start a war of this scale, not if he wanted to avoid impeachment.

No, the reason Bush declared Iraq a “grave and gathering” threat and linked it to al Qaeda and WMD–focused, in other words, on the “bureaucratic” reasons for the war, to use Wolfowitz’s term–is because he had to. Bush knew that only such a casus belli would convince the American people, who thought at the time, with reason, that al Qaeda was the enemy they were fighting.

This was a grand deception on the biggest scale in American history. Yet there was no room in the pre-war debate–nor is there much in Packer’s book–for those who saw through this game of three-card Monte, who simply wanted to destroy the only enemy that had actually declared war on America (that would be al Qaeda). Those who sought to do this, and who thought Iraq a costly and dangerous distraction, were labeled “appeasers” (Makiya’s term for Colin Powell) or “traitors” (Pentagon hawk William Luti’s term for Gen. Anthony Zinni). Packer, who is so unrelenting in his judgments of the mistakes made in the occupation, notes the disparagements of American patriots like Powell and Zinni briefly and without comment. These realists, many of whom were startlingly prescient about the oncoming disaster, get almost no space in his 450-page account. Apparently they weren’t a big enough part of the great “ideas debate.”

Sadly, it is thanks to the leading lights of this debate–such friends of Packer’s as Thomas Friedman and Leon Wieseltier, who are stalwarts of the liberal empyrean–that Bush got away with his grand deception. And it is thanks to their continued avoidance of this issue today–the main debate, even now, is how we did Iraq, not that we did it–that Bush continues to get away with it, petulantly insisting that he was right and successfully distracting Americans from the fact that he let bin Laden enjoy a second life as an Arab myth.

Packer’s book, unfortunately, does little to dispel this grand deception. After the Taliban collapsed abruptly in December 2001, American forces had bin Laden and his top lieutenants panting in the field. It was the last time, apparently, that the terror chieftain was caught by surprise. To bin Laden’s delight, at that moment America wheeled its war machine toward Iraq–as early as January 2002 we began diverting our best special forces teams and Predator drones to the Mideast–and allowed bin Laden to regroup. The battles of Tora Bora and Shahikot were lost opportunities to destroy al Qaeda because we were not focused. We did not have enough resources on the ground. Today, of course, bin Laden has managed to turn himself into the Johnny Appleseed of terror and Iraq has become the new Afghanistan, churning out a new generation of mujahedin, even as we have failed to secure the old Afghanistan. The lesson of the resurgence of the Taliban and of the recent London bombings–the terrifying idea that British citizens may have become suicide bombers–is proof enough that bin Laden has succeeded in turning his terror campaign into a global franchise. It is also further proof, as if we needed more, that we took our eye off the ball with Saddam Hussein, and that one does not fecklessly start new wars when others are unfinished.

Packer understands where the Bush principals–mainly Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz–were coming from. They were Cold War hawks. They had vast experience that seemed at first a strength but was one of their greatest drawbacks. “Through the three decades of their public lives, the only thing America had to fear was its own return to weakness,” he writes. “But after the Cold War ended, they sat out the debates of the 1990s [about transnational terror]…. When September 11 forced the imagination to grapple with something radically new, the president’s foreign-policy advisors reached for what they had always known. The threat, as they saw it, lay in well-armed enemy states.”

Yet Packer’s war reporting should have told him something more about these authors of the Iraq war. It should have told him that their biggest failing was that they did not know what Powell, Zinni, and he, George Packer, had learned the hard way about war. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith may have had a lot of policy experience, but they did not know war, had never served in war. That is why they embraced it so eagerly. They sought out war, invited it, in a way that people who have known combat would never do. Only those who have known war understand that, even in a high-tech age, it is still the worst thing that human beings can do to each other. Only they understand instinctively how, in the cauldron of hatred and fear that is war, incidents like the one Packer writes of in Fallujah, when U.S. soldiers killed 18 demonstrators in late April 2003 and helped to deepen the insurgency, can and will happen. Only those who have been in combat understand how an Abu Ghraib scandal will almost inevitably occur when the rules of war–designed as a firewall against these ugly passions–are thrown out. And only they understand the searing pain of losing buddies like Kurt Frosheiser, an experience that makes one reluctant to start new wars.

After many trips to Iraq, Packer has now learned these essential truths about war as well. This is the missing connective tissue that would have fleshed out his otherwise well-rounded tale of the Iraq fiasco. The book’s final verdict on the Bush administration hawks–and their failure to reconcile abstraction with reality–is damning. “Those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence,” he writes. But even at this late stage, Packer is referring to the way they fought the war, not that they chose to start it. “They turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one,” he says in the biggest understatement in the book. A difficult undertaking? Wars are always deadly, no matter how perfectly planned. That’s why one tries so hard to avoid them–and why the whole idea of a “war of choice” is a sin in itself. George Packer, one of the very best chroniclers of America’s Iraq experience, should know that better than almost anyone. If only he had told us.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.

Michael Hirsh is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.