Times are not good for liberal warriors and their friends. Seems that Iraq liberation thing didn't turn out as they fully expected, so now they're bemoaning the sorry fact that geopolitical reality smashed their lofty dreams of an Americanized Iraq, a happy place where they would attend privately-funded seminars, telling grateful invitation-only audiences How It Was Done with their support, then repair to one of Baghdad's many Starbucks for Chalabi Lattes and spirited conversations late into the night.
Instead, they got . . . well, what they got. Actually, the Iraqis are the ones who got it, and they continue to get it good and hard. But, really, must we spare a thought for those sad people when Western liberals are in such existential pain? If you think having to hit the polluted ground to avoid constant crossfire is bad, just imagine sitting in your garden and wondering What Went Wrong (or W3) on the other side of the world. It's an Abu Ghraib of the soul.
George Packer knows that sting. His new book on W3, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," is getting a fair amount of media attention, most recently at Salon, where Gary Kamiya devoted seven full screens to the tome. If you don't sub to Salon (and why would you?), you'll have to sit through a brief ad to read the whole thing, but I strongly recommend that you do. It's perhaps the clearest take on the present war lib dilemma, in which Kamiya dispenses some lib myopia of his own
In short, Packer, like all good libs, wants to see a democratic world that mirrors our own (y'know, a corporate-dominated society that serves those who own the economy), and no better or more necessary region presently exists than the Arab (and Persian) world, starting with Iraq. For over a decade, we've kicked and beaten the stuffing out of that country, so it was time to show some love -- tough love, mind you, but affection all the same.
Packer's intellectual tough love advisers were Kanan Makiya and Paul Berman. Makiya, an Iraqi exile who teaches Middle East Studies at Brandeis and runs the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard, was perhaps the more romantic one. For him, a US invasion of his home country would be like fine music; and when the first bombs hit Baghdad in 2003, Makiya compared the sound of explosions to a symphony (though he chose to remain stateside to better enjoy the concert). Makiya was a war lib's wet dream. As Kamiya puts it:
"That Packer was drawn to Makiya is not surprising. Of all those who argued for the war, Makiya was by far the most convincing. A brilliant, impassioned writer who refused to allow the West to forget the dreadful crimes of Saddam Hussein, who argued that the Iraqi people deserved a Western-style democracy, his support for the war carried the stamp of moral authority. Packer noticed Makiya walking around Cambridge, Mass., where Packer was living at the time, and introduced himself. So begins a relationship that runs like a unifying thread through the book."
But dark clouds soon formed. Even though, as Kamiya insists, that Makiya is a man possessed of "unimpeachable decency, idealism and courage," his support for the invasion grew out of "a naiveté verging on myopia and -- it turns out -- a near-complete lack of knowledge of the land he had fled so many years before."
In other words, Makiya had no fucking clue what was going on in Iraq, but this didn't stop him from advocating a US assault and occupation.
Oh how this hurt George Packer! In Kamiya's reading of Packer's book, "[m]uch of the pathos of 'The Assassins' Gate' derives from Packer's increasing realization that Makiya's beautiful vision bore no connection to reality."
Or as Woody Allen put it in "Annie Hall," intellectuals prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what's going on -- though in Makiya's case, "brilliant" is perhaps too loaded a word. The "no idea what's going on" part, however, he has down.
Then there's Packer's affair with Paul Berman who, for some inexplicable reason, is still seen by a good number of libs as a towering intellect and genius. With Makiya, Packer got the romantic expat; with Berman, he got the hard-headed American liberal who yearns for a more "muscular" yet humane approach to the world's misery. While Berman rejected much of Bush's rationale for war, he nevertheless supported the invasion on the grounds that the decaying Ba'athist state was part of a global threat to undermine if not destroy Western values (a theory spun out of his reading of Egyptian Islamic zealot Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966). Now that it's all gone to shit, Berman blames Bush for flubbing the whole exercise and not listening to the likes of him.
I've never met George Packer, but how smart can this guy be if he's taking counsel from Makiya and Berman? One of the true wonders of American intellectual culture is how mediocrities are celebrated as Great Minds. Part of this, I suspect, is wishful thinking -- that grand concepts of freedom and democracy, if properly packaged, are simply true because they are stated. This is a given in cable chat land, where fantasies and pieties (as well as bald-faced lies) pass as intelligent discussion. The standards of public intellectuals are supposedly higher, but reading people like Packer does little to support this thesis. That he's finally coming around to reality (due in large part to his visits to Iraq) is no vindication, as Kamiya and others suggest. Packer was willfully duped and led on a leash by those who lack a serious analysis of the world as it currently is, and saying "my bad," while welcome, means nothing in the larger brutal context.
Speaking of Berman, I debated him at the Henry George School in Manhattan around the time of Nicaragua's 1990 elections. This was when Berman peddled the fiction that the contras were a broad-based peasant army fighting Sandinista Stalinism, as opposed to the reality that they were CIA-funded death squads, led largely by pro-Somoza exiles, which avoided clashes with the Sandinista army in favor of hitting "soft targets" (Ollie North's term) like farms, health clinics and schools. At the time I thought there might be something to Berman's rep, but that ended after listening to five minutes of his opening statement. At best he was an amiable dope, incredibly easy to counter. Then, as now, Berman's head was somewhere else. And then, as now, poor people were massacred while he dreamed about their salvation.