“George Packer has to live in the world of the readers of The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and so forth. Those of us who are strongly for the war are still in the minority. But, I don’t give a shit.”
That was how Christopher Hitchens summed up a recent spat he’d had with Mr. Packer over the war in Iraq—which played out in the pages of The New Yorker and then, oddly, made it to Page Six. “I feel no obligation to please or to massage the huge consensus of pseudo-intellectuals that formed against the policy [of George W. Bush],” he continued, speaking by phone from Washington, D.C. “I have the feeling that George Packer wants to split the difference. Mr. Packer’s apologizing for his position. I’m not.”
The famously pro-war Mr. Hitchens was just coming off of a summer fellowship with the right-wing Hoover Institution, and his sentiments about “pseudo-intellectuals” and high-brow reporters speaks volumes about the current uneasy state of mind of those who get paid to share their opinions for a living. While the Vietnam War provoked widespread intellectual skirmishes, the war in Iraq has been one of low-simmering tensions and a fractured left. But as an eerily familiar debate over withdrawal gathers momentum, these various liberal camps of ego-brains have been quietly eyeing one another, wondering why they failed to sell their vision of a humane, pro-democracy war, and if anyone beyond their small universe even cares what they think. Not surprisingly, it has contributed to some widening schisms among writers who once considered themselves compatriots.
Mr. Hitchens, who writes for Slate and The Atlantic Monthly, clarified what world he’s currently living in. “It’s a matter of solidarity with the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, and trying to turn American policy in their favor,” said Mr. Hitchens. “I’m on their side, win or lose …. I could never publish an article saying, ‘Come to think of it, we never should have done this,’ because I could never look them in the face …. So, no, I don’t have any second thoughts.”
Beyond Mr. Hitchens’ world of certitude, things are more complicated. While liberal publications such as The Nation and The New York Review of Books have been steadily grinding out anti-war pieces, the left has suffered from the absence of some of its heavy hitters—Mr. Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, among others—who made high-profile alliances with the pro-invasion camp back in 2003. According to their critics, many of these “liberal hawks” haven’t yet published harsh critiques of the Bush administration’s handling of the war or re-assessments of their own positions—the kinds of pieces that might benefit the anti-war movement.
Mr. Packer, who profiled a group of such hawks for The New York Times Magazine in late 2002, seems ready to make an admission of sorts. In a recent New Yorker article, Mr. Packer sounded anguished as he recounted the media buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and took Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan and other colleagues to task for their earlier attitudes and characterizations of the war.
“Someone wrote that you knew who the surgeon would be, so you knew what the operation would look like. And there’s some truth to that. I was not as aware as I should have been of just how mendacious and incompetent the surgeon was going to be,” said Mr. Packer by telephone from his office at The New Yorker on a recent afternoon. “At the time, in March 2003, you had to make a choice: Are you going to say yes or no to this thing? Of course, it didn’t matter—it was going to happen no matter what you said—but in an existential sense, you wanted to be counted.”
Mr. Packer’s book, The Assassins’ Gate, will be released this October, and it examines the intellectual history of the war in a critical light as well as the effects of the occupation on the ground. The book will undoubtedly contribute to what many see as a newly burgeoning anti-war movement—one given new life since Donald Rumsfeld started test-marketing the idea of withdrawing American troops in 2006, and after last week’s Washington Post article in which a “senior official involved in policy” admitted that “what we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground.”
Rather than rage or anger, the mangled handling of the Iraq invasion seems to have led to a kind of depression on the part of many writers and thinkers who supported a war that increasingly seems hopeless. It is a decidedly awkward spot, filled with uncertainty about what the “right” position is at this point and whether they committed some massive, public blunder in staking out a favorable stance on the war in the first place.
“To me the great failure is that many of the people who backed the war have simply gone on backing it, without any real critique of what exactly has gone on there,” said Mark Danner, a contributor to The New York Review of Books who has written about Abu Ghraib, and who has debated with some of his pro-invasion counterparts. “They seem to feel they need to support the administration at all costs, rather than write clearly and honestly about the real issue—what’s happening in Iraq. But if you really believed in the war because you believed in democracy, don’t you feel strongly enough to want the administration to correct their mistakes when they’ve so fucked it up?”
In a way, some liberals’ previous support for the war “gives them a perverse and somewhat paradoxical authority in expressing their criticisms of the way the war was conducted,” according to Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of them are disillusioned about the way that the war has been conducted, but they aren’t quite ready to air all their frustrations in public. Mr. Danner said that more than one “liberal hawk” type had expressed dismay privately to him about their earlier war arguments, but that they had yet to commit their disenchantment to paper. (Mr. Danner declined to mention their names.)
Although the neocon-ish New Republic revisited the Iraq question last summer with an issue titled “Were We Wrong?” (the answer at that time was yes on the strategic front, but too soon to tell on the moral question), “there is a very deep reluctance to recant the war, because it involves facing up to some very tough intellectual choices,” according to Spencer Ackerman, an associate editor there who wrote the magazine’s “Iraq’d” blog.
“I don’t think that there’s much appetite for my argument that we need to leave [Iraq], and leave immediately, at the magazine,” said Mr. Ackerman.
Already bolstered by his own camp’s hordes of right-wing theorists, President George W. Bush used the liberal thinkers for public-relations purposes, and then ignored their pleas for more troops and resources to support Iraq’s struggling democracy. And many fear that he will dismiss their arguments for maintaining a longer-term security presence on the ground there as the demand for troop withdrawal swells around him. It almost seems like the liberal intellectuals have been sidelined altogether.
“Op-eds are great, and no one’s blocking us from writing them by the dozen,” said the legal scholar Noah Feldman, a constitutional and Islamic-affairs expert who helped write Iraq’s interim constitution. “But in the end, no one fundamentally shaped or changed a policy with a newspaper column—or at least, in today’s political environment, it’s pretty darn hard to do that. We’re watching this happening, desperately worried that this could become Vietnam in Lebanon. It’s not going to do my conscience a bit of good to see a bunch of op-eds and books saying, ‘This is going to happen.’ It’s not going to make me feel one bit better.”
It has been a painful few months indeed for the self-described liberal interventionists, who were anointed in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion as bold new forward-thinkers for their carefully parsed positions.
“I have to go now,” said the writer Paul Berman, half-jokingly, when faced with the question of his present view of the conflict in Iraq. “It’s a painful topic.” Mr. Berman said he saw a “wild inconsistency” among intellectuals who were in favor of promoting human rights but who were not doing more for the dissidents in Iraq. “You have to remember that the intellectuals are usually wrong,” Mr. Berman said.
“The people on the right cannot possibly be feeling the kind of dissonance that liberal supporters are feeling. It’s not a simple matter to live with, I have to tell you,” said Mr. Wieseltier, whose name appeared on a letter to Mr. Bush urging the removal of Saddam Hussein in late 2001, and who said that the U.S. shouldn’t cut and run. “I think that it is impossible, even for someone who supported the war, or especially for someone who did, not to feel very bitter about the way it has been conducted and the way it has been explained.”
For some writers who were accustomed to speaking only to tiny audiences clustered on the coasts, the invasion of Iraq and its implications presented an opportunity to actually influence something. It was a career-making moment for theorists who had cut their teeth in Bosnia and who were ready to test out their newly formed vision of American force as a tool to promote democracy and human rights and prevent genocide. It made media stars of academics like Mr. Feldman, who prior to the war was merely an “assistant professor who had been teaching for one year,” according to him, and the human-rights expert Michael Ignatieff of Harvard, who wrote various Iraq analyses for The New York Times Magazine. Writers such as Mr. Wieseltier, Mr. Berman and Mr. Hitchens were profiled admiringly in the months before the war, held up as avant-garde prophets.
The reality was something else altogether. The Iraq invasion has proven to be a true reporters’ war—far too dangerous for anyone not embedded with the Marines or carefully tucked away inside The New York Times’ Baghdad bunker to navigate. And not only has the Bush administration carried out the war and the occupation based on reasons which turned out to be greatly misrepresented, prompting a flurry of “I told you so’s” in certain circles, but it has flouted many of the key recommendations put forth by the liberal hawks, which had made their war support possible in the first place.
To make matters worse, the same group couldn’t even get the Democratic Presidential candidate to see things their way—or even to pay attention to what they had to say.
“John Kerry, who was the great hope for people like us, completely finked out. He had no Iraq policy,” said Mr. Feldman. “Many of us were on various advisory committees in the Kerry campaign, and we submitted our memos up the chain, and they were assiduously ignored. No one’s really listening.”
Mr. Feldman said that, with Mr. Kerry lost in a confused fog, the anti-war camp clamoring for immediate withdrawal and the Bush administration fixated on “magical thinking” and lean, quickie warfare, there was never a political constituency behind them.
“I consider that to be our failure, mind you,” said Mr. Feldman. “You’re a failure as an advocate if you can’t get people in power to move.”
“I think that anyone who was for the war, no matter how dramatically differently they would have wanted to fight it or how aggressively they have been in their criticism of the way it has been waged, still has to, you know, look in the mirror,” said Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, who is on book leave at the Brookings Institution. “And try to be honest in one’s assessment of what you got wrong.”
Mr. Hitchens, for his part, said that the prospect of being dismissed by his former allies or those in power is discouraging, but not enough to dampen his prolific output, which he said was motivated by “the reality in Iraq” (and which included two pieces in the last week about Cindy Sheehan, the war protester and mother of a dead American soldier, whom he called “an embarrassment to her family” in Slate).
“What would I have to complain about?” said Mr. Hitchens. “I have a platform from which I can write and speak. The fact that it makes no difference, and the majority of my friends and colleagues think that I must have taken leave of my senses, doesn’t make a difference at all. I’m not someone shouting back at the TV in some bar.”