Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Packer's "Dreaming of Democracy"

Of my favorite journalists is George Packer. His ongoing commentary on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq has the rare quality of being insightful and stinging at the same time. An absolutely fascinating read is his article "Dreaming of Democracy" from March 2, 2003. I've become enthralled with articles written before we went into Iraq, and this one is a survey of predictions about what will happen after Saddam was removed.

They range from Professor Kanan Makiya, who fed the White House a delicious morsel by saying we would be greated with "sweets and flowers" to the Peter Galbraith's, "'A unified and democratic Iraq is an oxymoron."

Even Abu Ghraib gets mentioned, years before it made world-wide news as a place of shame for the coalition, in an allegory about what liberation may be like. When Saddam ordered the release of thousands of prisoners from Abu Ghraib in 2002 the surge of inmates caused many to be crushed and killed in the rush for freedom.

"Reporters who ventured into the bowels of the prison were struck by the appalling odors of long human confinement," Packer writes. "When the seal on Iraq is broken, the surge will be just as intense, and the smell of decades of repression just as rank."

Packer's prediction proved to be correct.

All of the questions are here: should Iraq be de-Bathified? Should Iraq be divided into separate regions? And I had no idea so many books were written on Iraq regime change prior to our invasion. It's an entire sub culture almost in the same way some people build model trains or collect stamps. Some people write books on ripping out and rebuilding entire governmental structures. What isn't in the article is any mention of WMDs. No one "in the know" believed in that. This was purely an attempt at democratic reform--or perhaps anti-terrorism reform--in the Middle East.

"Iraqi Exceptionalism" had taken over, 9/11 just became the lever large enough to move it onto the main stage. This was the belief that Iraq has suffered for so long that it is different from other Arab countries in that it would not view Israel or America as the enemy as much as it sees the enemy within itself. Supporters of this idea included the aforementioned Makiya, and neo-conservatives in the Bush administration like Donald Rumsfeld, UN Ambassador John Bolton, ex-Bush adherent Richard Perle.

"It's called magical realism, Middle East-style,'' says Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To which Packer adds, "The war, which is vastly unpopular in the Arab world, is far more likely to improve the fortunes of the Islamists, he says, and provoke governments to tighten their grip, than to ventilate the region with an Arab spring."

And from there Packer essentially brings it home by saying that a unilateral war has never created a democracy in an environment like Iraq, foreign to democratic ideas. it would take a long commitment that would look like colonialism.

Without a doubt the most painful paragraph is the following:

More than anything, the president hasn't readied Americans psychologically to commit themselves to a project of such magnitude, nor has he made them understand why they should. He has maintained his spirit of hostility to nation-building while reversing his policy against it. Bush is a man who has never shown much curiosity about the world. When he met with Makiya and two other Iraqis in January, I was told by someone not present, the exiles spent a good portion of the time explaining to the president that there are two kinds of Arabs in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites. The very notion of an Iraqi opposition appeared to be new to him. War has turned Bush into a foreign-policy president, but democratizing an Arab country will require a subtlety and sophistication that have been less in evidence than the resolve to fight.

Packer's title "Dreaming of Democracy" was right on. It's fascinating to look at in the cold reality of hindsight but sickening when placed against reality. We trusted people like President Bush and we followed him down into the current nightmare.

Read the whole article here

Read his latest article in the New Yorker, here

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