It’s been dreadful these past three years putting up with George W. Bush’s fraudulent rationales for invading Iraq. And there’s no respite in sight — the phony justifications keep coming, no matter how many corpses pile up, no matter how badly the political situation deteriorates in Baghdad, no matter how many lies surface about the pre-war propaganda campaign.
The other night in a restaurant I had to bite my tongue, instead of my bread, when a man at a neighboring table declared his “trust” in Dick Cheney and the president.
But as much as I’m infuriated by the Bush brigade’s steadfast support of the Iraq horror, I find myself angrier still when pro-war liberals _ the so-called reluctant hawks _ wring their hands over the bloody mess they’ve wrought with their neo-conservative allies.
There are many such handwringers in politics, especially within the leadership of the Democratic Party. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware is forever asking “tough questions” about Iraq (the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo upset him terribly), without drawing the obvious conclusion that we never should have attacked in the first place, and need to get out as fast as possible.
In journalism, the current handwringer-in-chief is New Yorker writer George Packer, whose book “The Assassins’ Gate” has met with high praise from handwringers, hawks and a subset of pundits I call trimmers. Handwringers “anguish” over their past or current support for the war; hawks don’t apologize for anything; and trimmers criticize Bush the foolish president, but avoid unequivocal denunciations of this foolish war.
Christopher Hitchens, a ferocious hawk, has embraced “The Assassins’ Gate,” calling Packer “both tough-minded enough, and sufficiently sensitive, to register all (the) complexities (of the Iraq conflict).” Handwringer Samantha Power went even gushier in her blurb on the back cover: “Packer … cuts past the simplistic recriminations and takes us on an unforgettable journey that begins on a trail of good intentions and winds up on a devastating trail of tears.”
Trimmer Frank Rich of The New York Times settled for calling Packer’s book “essential,” and quoting it favorably in a column.
I think a better description of Packer is “useful idiot,” as invoked by some Western anti-communists when they ridiculed liberals sympathetic to the ruthless Soviet state. Too harsh, you say? After all, “humanists” such as Packer, Power and Michael Ignatieff signed on with the neo-conservative crowd for a “democracy-building” project in Iraq, not a proletarian overthrow of capitalism.
But Packer’s book is nothing if not the autobiography of a liberal dupe. Its central narrative concerns the political journey of Packer’s Svengali, Kanan Makiya, whose ascent from Iraqi Trotskyist and anti-Saddam exile to Cambridge (Mass.) intellectual to friend of Ahmed Chalabi to intimate adviser to Bush’s “cabal” of right-wing radicals is related in excruciating detail.
Like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, Makiya fancies himself a “revolutionary” using bullets made in the forges of the Enlightenment. But the whole neo-con notion of “shocking” the Arab and Muslim worlds onto the true and only path of “democracy” parallels the merciless Bolshevik mentality of 1917 more than it follows on the tolerant ruminations of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau.
So what if tens of thousands of bystanders get killed in the wake of the overwhelming historical forces of progress? Like Lenin and Trotsky, the neo-cons want world revolution, not slow evolution.
Packer reports (without evident irony) that Makiya told Bush that invading Iraq would “transform the image of America in the Arab world” (boy, did it ever), and he quotes his brainy pal as explaining to the president that once freed of Saddam Hussein, “people will greet the troops with sweets and flowers.” Yet even after 2-1/2 years of carnage, the tender, doubt-filled Packer is still seduced by his “idealistic” Iraqi soul mate.
Despite the “recklessness of its authors,” Packer writes, “the Iraq war was always winnable; it still is.”
I’ll grant Packer this much: He has a terrific, if unwitting, ear for the absurd and the grotesque. In “The Assassins’ Gate” we learn that Makiya wept while he sat with Bush in front of a TV and watched Saddam’s statue pulled down, in what we now know was a staged photo op _ also that “the sound of the first bombs falling on Baghdad was, to Makiya, a joyful noise.”
But there’s a limit to my appetite for black humor. Packer becomes insufferable when he announces that he hasn’t been able “to sort out (his) feelings” about Makiya and Iraq. “He was my friend and I loved him. He had devoted his life to an idea of Iraq that I embraced. He had attached that idea to the machinery of war, and a lot of people had gotten killed.” I feel your pain, George.
Would that Packer loved the U.S. Constitution, so badly defaced by a gratuitous war rammed through Congress on a wave of deception _ or that he cared more for the children killed and maimed in the United States _ guerrilla crossfire.
Would that he understood that the utopian ideologues in the Office of Special Plans were themselves being used by the cynical, power-mad and money-hungry troika of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.
Has it occurred to Packer that the invasion of Iraq might well have been little more than a neo-colonial oil grab and a cheap re-election-campaign tactic? Does he understand that Bill Clinton’s and NATO’s supposedly idealistic bombardment of Serbia in 1999 (endorsed by liberals, though it was unsanctioned by the United Nations) served as the prime philosophical precedent for Iraq, and was just as illegal?
Can he accept that “humanitarian intervention” often makes a bad situation worse? Would he be willing to take some Iraqi refugees into his home, in Brooklyn?
Might the fretful Packer conclude from all he has learned that no authentic democracy can be built on a lie? Apparently not, since he is currently frozen in the national headlights of liberal approbation (and, presumably, big book sales).
I recently had the chance to hear Packer and Makiya speak jointly in New York.
Makiya, unrepentant, was still spreading lies, while Packer was merely misreading people and books _ he earnestly invoked Graham Greene’s great Vietnam novel, “The Quiet American,” to make the unoriginal point that American “idealism” sometimes gets the United States into trouble.
Actually, Greene was talking about American “innocence,” a very different thing (which Packer cites more or less correctly in his book).
But the line from the novel that Packer should have memorized goes like this:
“Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” It’s a useful lesson for a useful idiot.
(John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.)