George Packer: Bring in the social scientists

Journalist George Packer has done a great job covering the before and the after of the Iraq War that he covered for the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker and turned into a book, The Assassins Gate. Gary Kamiya had this to say about Packer and his book in a review on The Road to hell :
Most of the American left lined up against the war in Iraq. But some did not. Among the liberal intellectuals who supported the invasion was George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker. His new book, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," proves that holding strong opinions about a subject does not prevent a journalist of integrity from reporting the truth, even if it flies in the face of what he had believed. "The Assassins' Gate" is almost certain to stand as the most comprehensive journalistic account of the greatest foreign-policy debacle in U.S. history.
A funny thing happened to Packer: He went to Iraq. Reporting is a solvent that dissolves illusions quickly if one has an open mind, and Packer brought that and much more. His first-rate reporting from occupied Iraq, and his superb work covering the corridors of power in Washington, offers an extraordinarily wide-ranging portrait of the Iraq war, from its genesis in neoconservative think tanks to its catastrophic execution to its devastating effects on ordinary Americans and Iraqis. Anthony Shadid, in "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War," offers a deeper portrait of the Iraqi people, but he does not have Packer's majestic scope. "The Assassins' Gate" is the best book yet about the Iraq war.
Packer's intentions were indisputably good. A man with a finely developed moral sensibility -- perhaps too fine -- Packer never pretended to know that he was right about Iraq. Although he accepted the most dubious and risky motivation for the war, the hubristic dream of implanting democracy by force in the Arab world, his real passion was to liberate the Iraqi people from a loathsome tyrant. He disliked and feared the Bush administration, and ended up throwing the dice on the war more out of hope than certainty.
"The administration's war was not my war -- it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances -- but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way. One doesn't get one's choice of wars," he writes. "I wanted Iraqis to be let out of prison; I wanted to see a homicidal dictator removed from power before he committed mass murder again; I wanted to see if an open society stood a chance of taking root in the heart of the Arab world. More than anyone else, Kanan Makiya guided my thinking, and I always found it easier to imagine a happy outcome when I was within earshot of him."
As much as it is a history of the war itself, this book is a history of the war of ideas around it. For Packer himself, the two key figures in that war were the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya and the cultural critic and New Republic contributor Paul Berman. Of the two, Makiya is by far more important. He serves as the moral center of the book, embodying the idealism and illusions that Packer himself held. If Makiya appealed to Packer's heart, Berman excited his brain. In many ways, some of them unacknowledged, "The Assassins' Gate" is the story of Packer's disillusionment with the ideas of both men.
Packer is a rare combination: an excellent reporter, a sophisticated analyst and a fine writer. He was also ubiquitous. No other journalist can match the breadth of Packer's Iraq coverage: He interviewed neocon war architect Richard Perle and talked to ordinary Iraqis after Saddam's fall; he covered a surreal prewar London meeting of Iraqi exiles swarming around Ahmad Chalabi and wrote about a dedicated U.S. Army captain trying to mediate disputes in a Baghdad slum. Reading "The Assassins' Gate" is like being escorted through the corridors of the Pentagon, the lounges of right-wing think tanks and the dangerous streets of Baghdad by a fearless and curious essayist, one simultaneously alive to intellectual nuances and to the human tragedies and triumphs he observes.
"The Assassins' Gate" is likely to be the definitive guide to one of the most outrageous scandals in U.S. history: the Bush administration's total failure to plan for the aftermath of a war of choice. That failure may have doomed the entire adventure. It cost the United States billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. Its cost to the Iraqi people and nation, which now faces a possible civil war, cannot be calculated. In a just world, Bush, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, Feith and their underlings would be standing before a Senate committee investigating their catastrophic failures, and Packer's book would be Exhibit

I agree with all of the above. After reading the book I recalled The God that Failed which included essays by famous American and European writers about their conversion to and subsequent disillusionment with communism. I thought about Packer as disillusioned liberal hawk who discovered that Iraq=Hell, reaching the conclusion by taking that road through good intentions. I was especially interested in reading about Packer's relationship with that professional Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya who ended up back in Boston (together with a married Iraqi woman) after his failure to democratize Iraq. But it seems that Packer is still in the mood for foreign policy idealism and ISO romantic figures a la Lawrence of Arabia to worship. In a new piece in The New Yorker (it's not available online), Packer profiles his new hero that is going to esnure that The Long War gets longer and longer. He is David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist who is also a lieutenant colonel in his country’s Army -- G'day, mate! -- and the chief strategist in the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coördinator for Counterterrorism. Here is a short summary of the article:
George Packer reports on a radically new approach to fighting the war on terror. A small group of social scientists within the State Department, Packer reveals, is working to redefine the way in which the U.S. military responds to the growing number of insurgent groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. He previews an ambitious new counterinsurgency field manual that the Army and the Marine Corps will release on December 15th—the first in more than two decades. Packer talks to a remarkable theorist named David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist who is also a lieutenant colonel in his country’s Army and the chief strategist in the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coördinator for Counterterrorism. Kilcullen, who is “on loan” to the U.S. government, claims that the notion of a “global war on terror” is fundamentally misguided, and argues that America is in fact facing a “global counterinsurgency.” As Packer writes, “The change in terminology has large implications . . . The notion of a ‘war on terror’ has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine . . . armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required.” In other words, America can’t simply win battles; it must win the political support of the civilian populations that feed radical Islamic movements. (Wow.... So, so profound). Kilcullen argues that, by framing the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban, the Iranian government, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda in terms of one big war, Administration officials and ideologues have made Osama bin Laden’s job much easier. “You don’t play to the enemy’s global information strategy of making it all one fight,” Kilcullen says. “You say, ‘Actually, there are sixty different groups in sixty different countries who all have different objectives. Let’s not talk about bin Laden’s objectives—let’s talk about your objectives. How do we solve that problem?’” Many members of the American military have begun to accept the need to learn counterinsurgency tactics aimed at achieving amity with Muslim people. (again, profound) Anthropologists and former military officers in the Pentagon are currently working on a new project called “Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain,” which is recruiting social scientists around the country to join five-person “human terrain” teams that would go to Iraq and Afghanistan with combat brigades and serve as cultural advisers on six-to-nine-month tours. (This isn't a joke!) Pilot teams are planning to leave next spring.
Packer writes that the Bush Administration has also failed to recognize that America is losing the “propaganda war” in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. America’s military efforts, Kilcullen tells him, are fatally undermined when Arab newspapers and Internet sites ceaselessly broadcast images of exploding Humvees, persuading civilians that all is chaos. According to Kilcullen, an information strategy seems to be driving every radical Islamist movement—he calls groups such as the Taliban “armed propaganda organizations.” He tells Packer, “The international information environment is critical to the success of America’s mission.” Packer writes that, in the information war, America and its allies are barely competing: “America’s information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly: a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory, but no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway).” In Iraq, Kilcullen says, “We’ve arguably done O.K. on the ground in some places, but we’re totally losing the domestic information battle. In Afghanistan, it still could go either way.” Packer notes that however careful Kilcullen is not to criticize Administration policy, his argument amounts to a thoroughgoing critique. He writes, “As a foreigner who is not a career official in the U.S. government, he has more distance and freedom to discuss the war on jihadism frankly, and in ways that his American counterparts rarely can.”
Packer suggests that the U.S. government recruit social scientists and launch this grand "information" campaign aka propaganda in the Arab/Moslems worlds which should lead to victory. Can't wait for The Social Scientists Gate. But seriously, what Packer needs to find is some sense of irony.


Anonymous said…
God. More basic than irony, maybe he should just question why he feels a compulsion to romanticize violence. The old "green beret", "commando" mystique. Like sending these guys around the world picking fights with dozens of separate groups is going to make us more popular.

The military and CIA turned to all kinds of social scientists during Vietnam. So it's not a new or outrageous idea. But it didn't, you know, work. Even the amazing powers of social "scientists" can't convince people they like a foreign military running around shooting people in their country.

globertrader said…
I've been wondering. If "neoconservatives" are liberals who were mugged by reality, what will we be calling neoconservatives who've been mugged by reality?
health editor said…
Good post, Dr. Hadar. I think Packer's article is badly written. By "information" he means politics and communication. He continues to use the term "war on terror" which is misleading, worse than useless. He does not discuss the biggest problem the US government has in playing global politics - its support for Israel.

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