Packer's Iraq Problem

by tristero

Anonymous sent me this comment on Packer's recent article about Iraq and Obama:
With regard to Packer, I had not read his latest piece until just now. Packer is an excellent writer, and, from all appearances, a smart guy. But, he is one of those 'smartest guys in the room'. He was an early supporter of this disastrous war and used his intelligence as an advocate and cheerleader instead of as an objective, skeptical reporter. Worse, he claimed some high ground for being pro-this-war on the basis of being a ‘first rate intelligence”:
the war has forced on all of us F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous test of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

… The ability to function meant honest engagement with the full range of opposing ideas; it meant facing rather than avoiding the other position’s best arguments. In those tense months, the mark of second-rate minds was absolute certainty one way or the other.”
For Packer, the two opposed ideas boiled down to ‘fear against hope’ – elegant, high-flown words to be sure. But in claiming this high ground, Packer (like other idealist intellectuals) was seduced by elegance and finessed away “the full range” of other ideas that sat much less ambiguously in the field of view – such as the rule of law, the teachings and lessons of actual Middle Eastern history, the trumped up and rushed ‘case for war’ and, by the standards of Packer’s own ‘first rate intelligence” yardstick, the distinctly ‘second-rate intelligence’ in charge at the Bush White house – and, therefore, on its face at the time – again, in full view -- the kind of absolutist (not to mention lying and corrupt) minds that would be implementing what Packer chose to support.

Packer has subsequently changed his mind about his initial support - but done so in a way that persists, oddly for a first rate intelligence, in making an assertion with ‘absolute certainty’: “There can be no phased withdrawal from the future of Iraq.”

Now, in this latest piece, we again see the agony of a ‘first rate intelligence’ that can neither quite let go of absolute certainties nor fully accept the consequences of his choiceto support the Bush/Cheney war and occupation:

"Iraq, despite myriad crises, has begun to stabilize" -- in Packer's wet dreams it has. Wet dreams because he so desperately wants some kind of fig leaf for his initial flight of fancy. Look, Iraq is a really complicated situation. And an extraordinarily fragile one. But, in light of ongoing violence, horrendous infrastructure, balkanized neighborhoods, shifting conditions in the various parts of Iraq (and, note to Packer: Baghdad is NOT all of Iraq), the number of refugees, the widespread hunger and illness, the varying and numerous militias, the persistent inconvenient fact that only 10% of Iraqi troops can operate effectively on their own without support/leadership of others, the weak leadership of Maliki, and much more, it is stunning that any intelligent person could use the word 'stabilize'. Stunning. That is, unless that intelligent person has an agenda.

"Obama’s rhetoric on the topic now seems outdated and out of touch" -- only to those, like Packer, who are denizens of what the left blogosphere so succinctly calls "The Village" -- the celebrity journalist 'in crowd' who have lost all sight of what journalism is for, and live in a bubble of their own making. In some hoary past, there was this idea that journalists ‘spoke the truth to power’. Today, those in good standing in the Village, speak ‘power to the truth” – they conspire with the Bush folks in ‘shaping reality”. So, I'm reasonably sure that Obama's rhetoric seems 'outdated and out of touch' to those who attend the same cocktail parties Packer does.

"It was a mistake— an understandable one, given the nature of the media and of Presidential politics today—for Obama to offer such a specific timetable" -- Nonsensical comment utterly characterized by unreality. Packer is one of those really smart guys who condescendingly characterize others' choices as 'understandable mistakes' in ways that actually are oxymorons. Reread 'understandable mistake" in light of reality from 2007 until today and you tell me how it doesn't sound like a joke like 'military intelligence'? I mean give me a f**king break. If there's one thing that reasonably clear, it's that Obama's timetable (especially when combined with Hillary's refusal to call her vote for war a mistake) was among the core, the essential, the small number of things that spelled the difference between Obama's nomination versus her's. How in any but the mind of a struggling idealist can that be a 'mistake'? We do live in a real world where there is this phenomenon known as electoral politics. Packer, though, seems so intent -- so obsessed -- with a deep inner need to find some -- ANY -- thread that can lead him out of the maze of his own making, the maze in which, he put himself when he threw in his lot with the ‘second-rate intelligence’ war mongering absolutists in charge of this needless, stupid, immoral, strategically flawed, and operationally mangled war and occupation.

"At the start of 2007, no one in Baghdad would have predicted that blood-soaked neighborhoods would begin returning to life within a year." -- This is slimy, immoral, rhetorical gamesmanship. "Begin returning to life" -- the smallest, most unstable promise of any upside is used rhetorically to buttress rather large and inflated assertions. And, by the way, in his earlier litany of the causes of this hoped for sunshine, Packer conveniently neglects to mention the Sunni Shia balkanization of Baghdad neighborhoods, the huge number of refugees who've left and may or may not return with grievances, or the concentration of forces in Baghdad (which, by the way, is a proof that the entire effort was undermanned militarily from the beginning because military folks have always asserted that to fight this kind of war you need a certain ratio of forces to population). In addition, Packer conflates Baghdad with all of Iraq -- making one wonder just how intent he really is in objectivity.

"whatever the idealistic yearnings of his admirers" – Really, please, Mr. Packer, just stop this! Just stop tarring ALL people with one brush and just stop labeling others with the very kind of idealism that you, more than any, practice. Put differently, what’s up with you? Are you a ‘self-hating idealist’? I mean, on the one hand you throw in your lot with absolutists who like to portray themselves as really pragmatic, hard nosed tough minded guys -- you know the kind of tough un-idealistic minded guy who can write that Baghdad and therefore all of Iraq has 'begun to return to life" and that, even though understandable in the, you know, world of US politics in 2007, Obama's declaration of timetable was a 'mistake' -- you know the kind of mistake only made by idealists and not pragmatists. Really, this guy is seriously deluded by his own idealism and ambition. For years, he has deeply wanted to be HEARD by other really smart, pragmatic people like, you know, those folks in the Cheney administration. One can almost hear the whisperings in his brain, “If only they’d listen to me, this Iraq thing could turn out okay.” Now, he wants just as desperately to be HEARD by Obama (hence this ‘mini-lecture’ to the Illinois Senator). Liker others, Packer seems to have seen too many WWII movies and, like the now sainted Russert, really felt in the run up to the invasion that he, Packer, couldn't be a real man unless he supported a defining war for his generation (a war in which he would not actually fight -- but would promote and so forth so that, decades into the future, he could give lectures on what real, non-idealist men did to make the MIddle East safe for democracy -- or, perhaps, safe for the hard nosed, pragmatic reality of seizing oil.) One wonders if Packer wears suspenders and smokes big cigars ... because, well, you know, those are the kind of props that give egoists the 'props' to write this sort of thing....

"He doubtless realizes that his original plan, if implemented now, could revive the badly wounded Al Qaeda in Iraq, re-ënergize the Sunni insurgency, embolden Moqtada al-Sadr to recoup his militia’s recent losses to the Iraqi Army, and return the central government to a state of collapse." -- Thank you Mr. Packer for this tour of Senator Obama's mind. And, also, by the way, for your excellent contribution to the political discourse in which any shift in the extraordinarily complex and fragile situation of Iraq is a direct result of Senator Obama's original plan. Oh, by the way, Mr. Packer, you might want to take your third rate mind and read David Hume on causality. You might learn something.

"Yet, as exhausted as the public is with the war, a candidate who seems heedless of progress in Iraq will be vulnerable to the charge of defeatism" -- 'the public" -- puhhlease. Last I heard, though perhaps its just me, there is no such thing as 'THE public". There are, not entirely unlike in Iraq, a whole slew of different groups with different opinions and so forth who make up the millions of folks in the US. It does seem that many of these differing groups are exhausted by Iraq. But not all. Some, like the 25 % who continue to support Bush, may not be exhausted by Iraq and, quite possibly, would enthusiastically embrace any charge of defeatism against Obama. Then, there are groups, many of whom might include journalists deeply committed to this war as well as Rovian, Norquistian and Cheneyian apparchiks who are now planting the seeds for future 'betrayal' charges against those who "idealistically" opposed this war (I doubt Packer, by the way, consciously and explicitly numbers himself in this group notwithstanding that his writings make him, ipso facto, a fellow traveler of these traitors). Then, there are other groups who, while exhausted by Iraq, would nonetheless vote for McCain for other reasons. And, then there are other groups who will, unquestionably, respond to and rationalize their votes for McCain because of some selected spin, even possibly the spin of 'defeatism'. But, in the real, non-idealist world of many ambiguities and competing ideas -- the real world in which ‘first rate intelligence’ must operate -- there really is no such absolute abstraction as 'THE public". Uh, George, it's kinda more complicated than that.
I'd like to add one final comment. Fitzgerald's description of a first-rate intelligence may be a clever phrase, but that is all it is; its power to describe and explain is limited, more or less, to literature. A first-rate musical intelligence - say, Glenn Gould's - cannot be described as “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Something entirely different is required, so different that "opposing ideas" doesn't begin to cover it.

Similarly, in the complex realities of foreign affairs and conflict, Fitzgerald's definition barely applies. Packer's appeal to Fitzgerald is an attempted romanticization of a brutal, disgusting, situation. As I wrote a very long time ago, in criticizing Chris Hedges,* there is something terribly wrong with literary approaches to war. It inadvertently romanticizes war - the process of turning human beings into hamburger - and the last thing this country needs is more romantic idealism about the glories, or the horrors, of war.

* But only on his style. Hedges was an early, courageous, and very vocal voice opposed to the Bush/Iraq War.