George Packer's recent piece of Iraq War reportage has, predictably enough, been met with the kind of oohs and aahs that has greeted most of his writing on our Iraq misadventure. Although it is sometimes noted that Packer was a supporter of the war--albeit based on grand moral and humanitarian motives that we are assured have nothing to do with the neocons' crasser geopolitical delusions--and has never exactly backed away from that support, for whatever reason even many people who opposed the war from the beginning find essays like this one from Packer to be "insightful" and "hard-hitting" in its criticism of the Bush war policy. Myself, I find it deeply disgusting.
Packer writes of those Iraqis who have been "betrayed" by the Bush administration. They were set up by its incompetence to take the fall they are now experiencing, led to believe their cooperation would redound to their credit and help bring democracy to Iraq. Etc. It's the same line Packer has been peddling since the war began to go wrong: the goal was noble, the execution inept. The bad people in the White House ruined his philanthropic war. As Michael Hirsch puts it more charitably in his review of Packer's Assassin's Gate, "With all of his visceral experience, Packer cannot free himself, finally, of the romance of this 'war of choice' for democracy."
According to Packer
Whenever I asked Iraqis what kind of government they had wanted to replace Saddam’s regime, I got the same answer: they had never given it any thought. They just assumed that the Americans would bring the right people, and the country would blossom with freedom, prosperity, consumer goods, travel opportunities. In this, they mirrored the wishful thinking of American officials and neoconservative intellectuals who failed to plan for trouble. Almost no Iraqi claimed to have anticipated videos of beheadings, or Moqtada al-Sadr, or the terrifying question “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Least of all did they imagine that America would make so many mistakes, and persist in those mistakes to the point that even fair-minded Iraqis wondered about ulterior motives. . . .
It's mind-boggling to me that Packer could report that most Iraqis had given no thought to what might replace Saddam, had "assumed that the Americans would bring the right people" and not acknowledge how utterly irresponsible and morally unhinged this makes his own initial support for the war--couched in all kinds of slippery vacillations about the possible dangers that might ensue--seem to be. Surely Packer, who assured us that anti-Saddam Iraqis were idealistic dreamers just like himself, had to know that most Iraqis were simply counting on the Americans to make the desert bloom, and that the Bush administration was singularly unprepared to undertake such a mission, yet he apparently based his support on the assumption that the very sort of Iraqis who now seem so naive would indeed step forward and help usher in democracy. What made him think that an invasion of a sovereign country--led by the likes of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, no less--that had no prior experience with democracy, and that was apparently going to rely on Ahmed Chalabi to bring it forth, could result in anything other than the catastrophe still ongoing? To me, his tacit support of this invasion amounts to moral dereliction of the rankest kind. At least Bush has his own stupidity as a partial excuse. What excuse does Packer have?
Did George Packer anticipate the "terrifying question 'Are you Sunni or Shia'"? Did he really believe the Bush administration incapable of "so many mistakes"? If he did anticipate the "terrifying question" but he didn't envision the Bush government's incompetence, perhaps he is only guilty of his own kind of stupidity. (Although it would be nice if he would confess to it.) But Packer has always distanced himself from the administration's tactics, as if this would shield him from blame when it all came a cropper. I believe he did anticipate the ethnic/religious turmoil that followed the invasion, yet he gave his assent to the war nevertheless, since his high ideals couldn't be mistaken. And he still won't admit that his allegiance to this brand of liberal idealism turned out to be no more admirable than neocon cynicism.
Packer's essay presents a doomsday scenario in which the United States is forced to flee Iraq in ignominy. Packer thinks this will leave those Iraqis who tried to assist the Americans in bringing stability to the country to their horrifying fate. That this is a wretched thought indeed, and that the Bush administration's actions in Iraq have been morally contemptible, cannot be denied, yet Packer won't acknowledge his own part in validating these actions. I find this just as contemptible, and the mind boggles even more loudly when Packer implicity endorses the notion that we must "give the new [surge] strategy a try." "The alternative, as Iraqis constantly point out, is a much greater catastrophe." With all the loathsome evidence of betrayal all around him, Packer continues to think we might just pull it all off after all, if we just stay around longer and inflict more pain.
In Assassin's Gate, Packer writes:
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."
Well, I want to see peace on earth and good will toward men myself, but I don't think that waging war is a good way of achieving it. I don't think that imposing my ideas of benevolence on people I know nothing about is a good way of eliciting their gratitude. None of his interviewing and profiling, his pretence at providing an "objective" view of what's happened in this demented war, will ever convince me that George Packer (and Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens) is doing anything other than willfully denying his own complicity in bringing civil strife and mortal danger to the people of Iraq.