Spencer Ackerman offered a gentle critique of his friend George Packer’s essay on Iraq in the premiere issue of the new World Affairs journal. I’d go a bit further — I think this very much represents the worst of Packer’s writing on Iraq rather than the best. It opens with some striking on-the-ground reporting from Iraq, then shifts to a discussion of how un-visceral these events are to most Americans, who are far more distanced from the conflict than we were from Vietnam and earlier wars. Eventually, though, it shifts into a kind of lame plea for open-mindedness:
So the lines were drawn from the start. To the pro-war side, criticism was animated by partisanship and defeatism, if not treason. This view, amplified on cable news, talk radio, and right-wing blogs, was tacitly encouraged by the White House. It kept a disastrous defense secretary in office long after it was obvious that he was losing the war, ensured that no senior officer was held accountable for military setbacks, and contributed to the repetition of disastrous errors by the war’s political architects. Meanwhile, the fact that the best and brightest Iraqis were being slaughtered by a ruthless insurgency never aroused much interest or sympathy among the war’s opponents. The kind of people who would ordinarily inspire solidarity campaigns among Western progressives — trade unionists, journalists, human rights advocates, women’s rights activists, independent politicians, doctors, professors — were being systematically exterminated. But since the war shouldn’t have been fought in the first place, what began badly must also end badly.
Note that even in Packer’s somewhat tendentious accounting, there’s no actual parallelism here. War supporters, invested in the idea that they were right when they were, in fact, wrong blinded themselves to actual developments on the ground in Iraq. War opponents were, by contrast, what? It’s hard to say. Not blinded by denial that terrible things were happening in Iraq. But, I guess, not affected by these terrible happenings in the way Packer thinks would have been appropriate? Insufficiently surprised that a war they’d always regarded as ill-advised turned out to be ill-advised? It’s not clear.
As we go deeper, this continues to be the pattern. Packer sees a very schematic United States of America. One where “Pro-war journalists and bloggers deride the piece as fraudulent and anti-military” even before evidence is in on the Scott Beauchamp case. Similarly, when “two center-left think tank analysts return from a trip to Iraq and declare in an op-ed that the surge has produced military successes” the response is that “by the next morning, anti-war journalists and bloggers are in full cry, deriding the piece as credulous, dishonest, and self-serving.” This did happen, but it’s curious that Packer doesn’t name the think tank analysts. Well, their names are “Kenneth Pollack” and “Michael O’Hanlon.” And whatever else one might say about Pollack and O’Hanlon, it’s certainly not the case that left of center people have been blindly ignoring their views throughout the course of the Iraq debate. Quite the reverse — Pollack’s The Threatening Storm was hugely influential and O’Hanlon was, for years, one of the most prominent national security analysts in America.
Similarly, given Packer’s dystopian vision of American discourse, it’s hard to understand how Packer’s book, The Assassin’s Gate, sold so many copies and attracted such wide praise or how Packer came to have a job with the most prestigious magazine in the country — a magazine which published a lot of basically pro-war material in 2002 and 2003 and went on to vociferously denounce George W. Bush in 2004.
The reality is that the American political debate from 9/11/01 to today has been enormously complex. A once-popular war has become highly unpopular. A great many people, myself included, have not only changed our minds about the war but changed our minds about a larger set of concerns. The market for the sort of serious, thoughtful reporting and analysis Packer has brought us from the region has actually been very large. People from differing political perspectives came together to contribute essays to a new journal called World Affairs. Howard Dean rose and fell then kinda sorta rose again to become DNC Chair. Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic nomination, but secured election as an Independent. The distance between America and Iraq that Packer writes about is real enough, and it’s quite true that the war exists as a kind of abstraction — a faint presence. But the dumb and indifferent public senselessly processing information through fixed partisan blinders just isn’t there — the country wasn’t evenly split on the war in the summer of 2003, and it’s not evenly split today, either; a lot of debate has happened and a lot of people have changed their minds. Indeed, that changing of minds has in many ways been the central fact of American politics in recent years.