by Eric Martin
George Packer responds to recent posts by Hilzoy and myself, although in actuality he directs his response to the comments section which he bemoans as being notable for the "considerable volume of sheer vituperation." While he doesn't mention either Hilzoy or me by name, he does make a curious non-sequitur reference to our professions, philosophy professor and lawyer respectively [though I'm not an "international lawyer" for the record]. In fact, Packer, who in the opening paragraph complains about the tone of the Obsidian Wings commenters' criticisms of his work, punctuates a later argument with this snide allusion to Hilzoy: "You don’t have to be a philosophy professor to grasp these differences—it might even help not to be."
So it is that within the first couple of paragraphs Packer provides examples of what has become a persistent criticism leveled in his direction: that he is dismissive of those that disagree with him, refusing to treat arguments in good faith, instead opting for caricatured depictions and extreme opinions that are not representative but that are easier to take down.
In the present example, rather than respond directly to the core of the authors' arguments (he barely touches Hilzoy's criticism at all), he chooses to conflate comments with the posts themselves so that he can cherry pick to bolster his rebuttal. Within that context, he seeks to preemptively delegitimize the comments as a whole by pointing to the invective found in some. Finally, he attempts to pull rank in a familiar way by highlighting professional resumes: surely the analysis of a philosophy professor and lawyer would be, presumptively, of less merit than that of an actual journalist such as Packer (regardless of the actual substance of the parties' respective analysis or track records). Unless there was another, relevant point to be made in mentioning our occupations?
Although I enjoyed The Assassins' Gate immensely (and much of his other writing), the book's biggest drawback is its characterization of the anti-war movement as fringe, knee-jerk in its pacifism and lacking in "understanding" of the region. This was consistent with Packer's pre-war condemnation of the anti-war movement being part and parcel with a "doctrinaire left" that opposes any and all American foreign policy. Or as Packer put it in another piece, the antiwar movement was "controlled by the furthest reaches of the American left" - a conclusion supported in that article by reference to slogans and signs at some anti-war rallies.
A closer look reveals a different picture. Apparently, the furthest reaches of the American left included the likes of Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Walt and a host of hardnosed rightwing realists. Not to mention these people. But their arguments weren't easy to dismiss, and so they were wished away. So, too, were logistical arguments raised by such fringe leftists as General Eric Shinseki. Ironically, Shinseki's argument about troop levels (ignored at the time) was later resurrected by the likes of Packer to explain that, while his intentions were noble, the Bush administration failed to execute the plan properly. That maneuver has become known as The Incompetence Dodge.
Packer's initial rebuttal to my charge that his call for a "stronger American stand" and critique of Obama represented the wrong approach is that he wrote the piece that I challenged before Obama had made a subsequent statement that he considered adequate. Fair enough, but then I would invoke the same chronological defense: my post criticizing Packer came before his later clarification.
But Packer, and other liberal hawks, should not be so defensive. While I made a point of stressing in my original piece that I have no interest in excommunicating former Iraq war supporters such as Packer and Sullivan, nor do I endorse a blanket embargo on their works (far from it, I continue to read each with regularity), nevertheless, given Packer's role in providing a bi-partisan cover for the Iraq war (probably the biggest blunder in the history of American foreign policy) his ongoing foreign policy advocacy should receive heightened scrutiny to determine if that Iraq war support was an aberration or part of a dangerous pattern.
After all, support for the Iraq war along the philosophical lines evoked by Packer at the time was a symptom, rather than the disease itself. The actual pathology (at least for those with good intentions) is support for a hyper-interventionist strain of foreign policy that treats as a given that military intervention can be used effectively (and should) for humanitarian goals in a number of settings (from the Balkans to Iraq to Burma), and that legitimate goals could include anything from interdicting a genocide to democracy promotion. Underlying this faith in the redemptive power of war is a presumption of American exceptionalism, and the esteem it supposedly enjoys in the eyes of the world, sufficient to soften the jagged edges of shrapnel and other ordnance. They will greet us as liberators!
The question that will loom over Packer and other Iraq-war supporters is to what extent they have rethought these basic assumptions such that they will not fall into the same trap again? Is their advice worth heeding? Being subject to this initial skepticism is a small price to pay considering the harsher treatment war opponents have received- marginalized, disregarded and treated as unserious while war supporters are still turned to for counsel by the larger media outlets.
In terms of reassuring readers, Packer does himself no favors by reacting in such a dismissive way to those that take issue with what seemed like a call for inserting America into an internal Iranian electoral dispute in a way that would likely hurt the prospects of those we would, ostensibly, be seeking to help. In fact, after conceding that Obama did take the right approach by not being so vocal and partisan, he seems to revisit the argument anew casting doubt on those that suggested that too strong a role from Obama could prove detrimental:
A number of writers seem to know exactly what the Iranians in the streets want from us, and what they want is for us to stay out of it.
Actually, the discussion was about what position the President of the United States should take, officially. Not what Iranians in the streets want from the broader "us."
I wonder how many Iranians these writers have talked to. But even if you don’t have Iranian contacts, you can still try to imagine your way into the situation of the protesters.
Ah, again, pulling rank. The thing is, regardless of actual one-on-one conversations, and the anecdotal evidence such conversations yield (evidence that is of dubious value at best), writers can rely on the words of Iranian activists, reformers and protesters that have been published far and wide via various means. In terms of high profile statements, one can look to, Shirin Ebadi, Trita Parsi or Akbar Ganji, to name but a few.
Every day you have to summon the courage to go out into the streets (where the death toll is now reportedly at thirty-two), and your awareness of international opinion is steadily diminishing as Internet and phone access is choked off. A part of your mind is alert to the danger of being labeled an American agent, always a factor in the regime’s propaganda; but given the enormous risks you’re already running, a much larger part of your mind is afraid that the world is going to lose interest or write you off, that the regime is going to stop feeling any international pressure to behave with restraint, and that when the guns start mowing protesters down in earnest, no one will be watching. When the stakes are this high, being the object of too much foreign concern is not likely to be your number one fear.
But the argument from Ebadi, Parsi, Ganji and others is that too heavy-handed an approach by the American government would facilitate that same violent Iranian government crackdown by lending credence to the charge of American manipulation. Further, it is interesting that Packer is able to "imagine" protesters dismissing concerns of whether or not a more plausible charge of American agency provides cover for Iranian government crackdowns, but at the same time that these protesters are very concerned with what Americans are saying and thinking about their struggle. And that as their "awareness of international opinion is steadily diminishing" we should speak up...even though they won't hear us? Again, America becomes a central character in a story where we would be better kept off stage - at least with respect to official government statements.
Later, Packer responds to charges that he has a militaristic streak. In so doing, he falls back into some of those familiar bad habits: not treating actual arguments in good faith, cherry picking some statements to tar entire groups, etc.
According to the bloggers and commenters at Obsidian Wings, I have declared war or am contemplating a declaration of war on at least four countries. For the record, since international attorneys seem to forget their research skills and standards of evidence when they turn to blogging...
First of all, I did not claim that Packer "declared war or [was] contemplating a declaration of war on at least four countries." Interestingly, journalists seem to forget their research skills and standards of evidence when they respond to bloggers. My quote (from the comments section, not the main post):
Packer supported military intervention in Burma recently. As well as other locales (Darfur, ie).
While Packer mentions four locales, he only discusses three (Darfur, Burma and Iran). I assume the fourth is Iraq, which we can treat as a given. With respect to Iran, I never made any mention at all, so that's a moot point. As to Darfur, Packer says this:
I have not called for an American invasion of Darfur.
Well that's all well and good, but I never said he did. I said he called for a military intervention.
The only piece I’ve ever written on the subject suggested that more aggressive diplomacy and tighter financial sanctions against the regime leaders in Khartoum might be the best way to change their behavior.
But in that piece, Packer also chides the Bush administration, African leaders and the international community for failing to contribute to and field a force of some 20,000 UN peacekeepers, and take other measures at intervention. This seems to vindicate my claim that Packer supported military intervention in Darfur.
As for Burma, Packer, again, seeks to shape the contours of the debate:
I have not called for an American invasion of Burma [ed: nor did I claim you did]. After the cyclone, with the Burmese government actively preventing rescue and relief efforts, I explored the possibility, along with the dangers and difficulties, of an international mission to bring aid to victims without the regime’s permission.
In recounting his piece in Burma in which he claims to "explore" certain options, what he leaves out is his conclusion and support. A sample:
And yet [an armed intervention that would be treated as an invasion] might be what’s necessary in Burma...But if the fear of Baghdad and Falluja is what keeps foreign powers from saving huge numbers of Burmese from their own government’s callousness, that will be one more tragic consequence of the Iraq war. [...]
On the other hand, if it’s going to be done, it should be done quickly. I know all the arguments why we shouldn’t. But there are at least a million counterarguments why we should.
That last bit would seem to be relevant to a discussion of whether or not a given piece was a mere exploration of options, or an actual call for military intervention. You don’t have to be a journalist to grasp the importance of such inconvenient facts - it might even help not to be.
[UPDATE: Spacktackerman weighs in from a safe distance - wise to steer clear of this fray.]