Commentary Magazine


Topic: George Packer

Liberals’ Civility Test

A week after President Obama’s stirring remarks at the Tucson memorial service comes an important Civility Test for liberals.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports that Democratic Representative Steve Cohen went to the well of the House and compared what Republicans are saying on health care to the work of the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

“They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels,” Cohen said. “You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like ‘blood libel.’ That’s the same kind of thing. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust. You tell a lie over and over again. We heard on this floor, government takeover of health care.”

In our post-Tucson world, I’m eager to see people like E.J. Dionne Jr., Dana Milbank, and Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post; George Packer of the New Yorker; James Fallows of the Atlantic; Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and the editorial page of the New York Times; Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Ed Schultz of MSNBC, and scores of other commentators and reporters all across America both publicize and condemn Representative Cohen’s slander.

Each of them will have plenty of opportunities to do so. I hope they take advantage of it. I hope, too, that reporters ask White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs what his reaction is. And I trust President Obama, who spoke so eloquently last week about the importance of civility in our national life, has something to say about this ugly episode as well. If the president were to repudiate Mr. Cohen quickly and publicly, it would be good for him, good for politics, and good for the nation.

But if the president and his liberal allies remain silent or criticize Cohen in the gentlest way possible, it’s only reasonable to conclude that their expressions of concern about incivility in public discourse are partisan rather than genuine, that what they care about isn’t public discourse but gamesmanship, not restoring civility but gaining power.

I’m sure conservatives will face similar tests in the months ahead — and they should be held to the same standard.

For now, though — in light of the libel by Representative Cohen — it is liberals who have the opportunity to take a stand on the matter of civility in public discourse, and in the process, to clarify their intentions and demonstrate the seriousness of their commitments.

A week after President Obama’s stirring remarks at the Tucson memorial service comes an important Civility Test for liberals.

ABC’s Jonathan Karl reports that Democratic Representative Steve Cohen went to the well of the House and compared what Republicans are saying on health care to the work of the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

“They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels,” Cohen said. “You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like ‘blood libel.’ That’s the same kind of thing. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it and you had the Holocaust. You tell a lie over and over again. We heard on this floor, government takeover of health care.”

In our post-Tucson world, I’m eager to see people like E.J. Dionne Jr., Dana Milbank, and Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post; George Packer of the New Yorker; James Fallows of the Atlantic; Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and the editorial page of the New York Times; Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, and Ed Schultz of MSNBC, and scores of other commentators and reporters all across America both publicize and condemn Representative Cohen’s slander.

Each of them will have plenty of opportunities to do so. I hope they take advantage of it. I hope, too, that reporters ask White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs what his reaction is. And I trust President Obama, who spoke so eloquently last week about the importance of civility in our national life, has something to say about this ugly episode as well. If the president were to repudiate Mr. Cohen quickly and publicly, it would be good for him, good for politics, and good for the nation.

But if the president and his liberal allies remain silent or criticize Cohen in the gentlest way possible, it’s only reasonable to conclude that their expressions of concern about incivility in public discourse are partisan rather than genuine, that what they care about isn’t public discourse but gamesmanship, not restoring civility but gaining power.

I’m sure conservatives will face similar tests in the months ahead — and they should be held to the same standard.

For now, though — in light of the libel by Representative Cohen — it is liberals who have the opportunity to take a stand on the matter of civility in public discourse, and in the process, to clarify their intentions and demonstrate the seriousness of their commitments.

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The Cynicism and Intellectual Corruption of the Left

You would have to be living on another planet not to be aware of the effort by some on the left and in the media to blame conservatives for creating a “climate of hate” that encouraged a suspect, Jared Loughner, of attempting the political assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which resulted in the death of six people and the wounding of 13 others.

This crusade is being led by the New York Times, whose front-page story on Sunday said this:

While the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear, an Internet site tied to the man, Jared Lee Loughner, contained antigovernment ramblings. And regardless of what led to the episode, it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.

Note these seven words: “regardless of what led to the episode.”

These words matter, because there is no evidence that we know of that “inflammatory language” that has “become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture” drove Loughner to pull the trigger. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the man accused of the massacre, Mr. Loughner, has a twisted, disturbed, and violent mind. That is almost certainly why he committed his malevolent act. Listening to WABC in the afternoon had nothing to do with it.

Yet this doesn’t appear to matter much at all to those on the left. They are determined to draw some deeper meaning — and some political advantage — from this tragedy. They want to libel conservatism. As Jonathan noted on Sunday, George Packer of the New Yorker, in a post revealingly titled “It Doesn’t Matter Why He Did It,” described Loughner as “a delusional young man whose inner political landscape is a swamp of dystopian novels, left- and right-wing tracts, conspiracy theories, and contempt for his fellow human beings.” But Packer goes on to write this:

the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor.

This borders on being a non sequitur because, even if you allow for Packer’s tendentious and one-sided version of events (he willfully ignores liberals who routinely demonize those on the right), what conservatives said in the past two years doesn’t appear to have any bearing on what Loughner is accused of doing. Yet Packer admits this is, for him, beside the point. “The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point,” according to Packer. “Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.” Read More

You would have to be living on another planet not to be aware of the effort by some on the left and in the media to blame conservatives for creating a “climate of hate” that encouraged a suspect, Jared Loughner, of attempting the political assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which resulted in the death of six people and the wounding of 13 others.

This crusade is being led by the New York Times, whose front-page story on Sunday said this:

While the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear, an Internet site tied to the man, Jared Lee Loughner, contained antigovernment ramblings. And regardless of what led to the episode, it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.

Note these seven words: “regardless of what led to the episode.”

These words matter, because there is no evidence that we know of that “inflammatory language” that has “become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture” drove Loughner to pull the trigger. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the man accused of the massacre, Mr. Loughner, has a twisted, disturbed, and violent mind. That is almost certainly why he committed his malevolent act. Listening to WABC in the afternoon had nothing to do with it.

Yet this doesn’t appear to matter much at all to those on the left. They are determined to draw some deeper meaning — and some political advantage — from this tragedy. They want to libel conservatism. As Jonathan noted on Sunday, George Packer of the New Yorker, in a post revealingly titled “It Doesn’t Matter Why He Did It,” described Loughner as “a delusional young man whose inner political landscape is a swamp of dystopian novels, left- and right-wing tracts, conspiracy theories, and contempt for his fellow human beings.” But Packer goes on to write this:

the tragedy wouldn’t change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor.

This borders on being a non sequitur because, even if you allow for Packer’s tendentious and one-sided version of events (he willfully ignores liberals who routinely demonize those on the right), what conservatives said in the past two years doesn’t appear to have any bearing on what Loughner is accused of doing. Yet Packer admits this is, for him, beside the point. “The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point,” according to Packer. “Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America’s political frequencies are full of violent static.”

Think about the formulation for a moment: “The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point.” The important point isn’t the dead or the wounded; it’s Fox News, Sarah Palin, and conservative talk radio. Blaming conservatives, you see, is the storyline Packer, the New York Times, and scores of other liberal commentators have settled on. They have decided on their narrative; inconvenient facts — also known as reality — cannot get in the way of their crusade.

This is all very postmodern, a simplistic version of deconstructionism. What is on display is a cast of mind in which facts and reality are secondary to storylines and narratives. The aim is not truth; it is to advance The Cause. It is also about cynical exploitation. As one veteran Democratic operative told Politico, the Obama White House needs to “deftly pin this on the tea partiers” just as “the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people” in 1995.

It is all quite sick, really. Not a few liberals are attempting to use a human tragedy to advance an ideological agenda. They are using dead and broken bodies as political pawns. The blood was still flowing from the gunshot wounds of slain and wounded people in Tucson as liberals began an extraordinary and instantaneous smear campaign. It will end up making our political discourse even more angry and toxic.

I was naïve enough to be surprised at what has unfolded in the last 48 hours. The cynicism and intellectual corruption on the left is deeper than I imagined.

Lesson learned.

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RE: Left Shamelessly Seeks to Exploit Arizona Tragedy

Less than 24 hours after the story of the Arizona shooting first broke, Americans woke up to Responsible-Rhetoric Sunday. Every newspaper and news-analysis show piously raised questions about the country’s overheated political rhetoric and its relationship to yesterday’s massacre. This was nothing short of the immediate and seamless political hijacking of a senseless tragedy.

That the alleged shooter has left a long and florid  multimedia trail detailing what looks like a chaotic battle with paranoid psychosis has led, of course, to this obvious  conclusion: Sarah Palin is, at least partially, to blame: “During the fall campaign, Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, posted a controversial map on her Facebook page depicting spots where Democrats were running for re-election,” write Marc Lacey and David Herszenhorn in the New York Times. “Those Democrats were noted by crosshairs symbols like those seen through the scope of a gun. Ms. Giffords was among those on Ms. Palin’s map.”

And what about 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green? Was the little girl killed in yesterday’s shooting also “among those on Ms. Palin’s map”? Were the other 16 victims? The scrambled mind behind yesterday’s unspeakable rampage is obviously not organized enough to act on any real-world motivations, let alone political ones. But never mind, the media will take it from there.

A responsible pundit class would have explored the issues most relevant to the shooting: severe mental illness and its warning signs; social networks and the responsibilities of participants; the challenges posed to the security of American officials. Instead, we got the latest installment in what has become a liberal-media pastime: shaping apolitical tragedies into left-wing talking points. Violent crimes are ripe for this treatment. Michael Moore squeezed an entire anti-Balkan intervention movie out of the Columbine shooting. Natural disasters work too: a tornado devastates Greensburg, Kansas? Then-governor Kathleen Sebelius blamed Iraq policy, naturally. A hurricane overwhelms New Orleans? Well, that’s Bush for you. Everything from the Duke-lacrosse case to the BP spill to the earthquake in Haiti can be trumped out as evidence of conservatism’s evils. By the time history puts these things in perspective, we’ve all become a little dumber and more than a little dirtier.

Today, with a nation awash in personal tragedy and people in hospital beds fighting for their lives, the political spin of yesterday’s horror marks a new low. Indeed it is no small indignity for conservatives to have to join this unseemly debate in order to refute liberal analysis. The preposterous George Packer writes, “for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale.” And so it feels frankly indecent to point out that it was President Obama who called Republicans “enemies” in the run-up to the November elections.  If the shapeless massacre in Arizona devolves into nothing but another round of sound-bite ping-pong, then all the hopes of 2011 being a fresh start with a new Congress are for naught. For even as our elected leaders now act with a somewhat restored sense of dignity and unity, talking heads have waged a civil war.

Less than 24 hours after the story of the Arizona shooting first broke, Americans woke up to Responsible-Rhetoric Sunday. Every newspaper and news-analysis show piously raised questions about the country’s overheated political rhetoric and its relationship to yesterday’s massacre. This was nothing short of the immediate and seamless political hijacking of a senseless tragedy.

That the alleged shooter has left a long and florid  multimedia trail detailing what looks like a chaotic battle with paranoid psychosis has led, of course, to this obvious  conclusion: Sarah Palin is, at least partially, to blame: “During the fall campaign, Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, posted a controversial map on her Facebook page depicting spots where Democrats were running for re-election,” write Marc Lacey and David Herszenhorn in the New York Times. “Those Democrats were noted by crosshairs symbols like those seen through the scope of a gun. Ms. Giffords was among those on Ms. Palin’s map.”

And what about 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green? Was the little girl killed in yesterday’s shooting also “among those on Ms. Palin’s map”? Were the other 16 victims? The scrambled mind behind yesterday’s unspeakable rampage is obviously not organized enough to act on any real-world motivations, let alone political ones. But never mind, the media will take it from there.

A responsible pundit class would have explored the issues most relevant to the shooting: severe mental illness and its warning signs; social networks and the responsibilities of participants; the challenges posed to the security of American officials. Instead, we got the latest installment in what has become a liberal-media pastime: shaping apolitical tragedies into left-wing talking points. Violent crimes are ripe for this treatment. Michael Moore squeezed an entire anti-Balkan intervention movie out of the Columbine shooting. Natural disasters work too: a tornado devastates Greensburg, Kansas? Then-governor Kathleen Sebelius blamed Iraq policy, naturally. A hurricane overwhelms New Orleans? Well, that’s Bush for you. Everything from the Duke-lacrosse case to the BP spill to the earthquake in Haiti can be trumped out as evidence of conservatism’s evils. By the time history puts these things in perspective, we’ve all become a little dumber and more than a little dirtier.

Today, with a nation awash in personal tragedy and people in hospital beds fighting for their lives, the political spin of yesterday’s horror marks a new low. Indeed it is no small indignity for conservatives to have to join this unseemly debate in order to refute liberal analysis. The preposterous George Packer writes, “for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale.” And so it feels frankly indecent to point out that it was President Obama who called Republicans “enemies” in the run-up to the November elections.  If the shapeless massacre in Arizona devolves into nothing but another round of sound-bite ping-pong, then all the hopes of 2011 being a fresh start with a new Congress are for naught. For even as our elected leaders now act with a somewhat restored sense of dignity and unity, talking heads have waged a civil war.

Read Less

Left Shamelessly Seeks to Exploit Arizona Tragedy

The shooting in Arizona is the sort of thing that obligates all sides in political debates to call a timeout. Right now our collective prayers are with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family as she struggles for life, as well as with the families of those who were murdered in this senseless evil attack. But acting in the spirit of Rahm Emanuel’s belief that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste, some on the left are determined to exploit this tragedy to advance their own partisan interests.

One example is a post by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who writes today that “It doesn’t matter why he did it.” The “he” is the alleged Arizona murderer Jared Loughner, a mentally unstable creature who thinks that the government is imposing “mind control” on the public via “grammar.”

Packer concedes that Loughner is not an advocate of any coherent ideology or movement that has any real link to anything that is part of contemporary political debates, including the Tea Party activists. But to him that is irrelevant, because conservative activists and pundits have spent the last two years criticizing President Obama and his policies, making violence inevitable.

It is true that a few people on the margins have indulged in rhetoric that can be termed attempts at the “delegitimization” of Obama, including those who have irrationally focused on myths about the president’s birthplace and religion. But on the left it has become a piece of conventional wisdom that all conservatives are somehow guilty of rhetoric that crosses the bounds of decency. Indeed, so sensitive are Packer and those who think like him that even the public reading of the Constitution this past week by members of Congress (an exercise that included Rep. Giffords, who proudly read the First Amendment) is “an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.”

Speaking in the same spirit, the National Jewish Democratic Council asserted: “It is fair to say — in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric — that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.”

Both Packer’s post and the NJDC statement reflect the liberal talking point of the last two years that has sought to maintain the pretense that the Tea Party and other fervent critics of Obama were nothing more than hate-filled nut cases rather than merely citizens who were asserting their constitutional right of dissent. But as the election in November proved, the Tea Party turned out in many respects to be more representative of mainstream America than the media and other elites who branded them as extremists.

It is true that the political debate in this country over the last two years has been heated, with President Obama and congressional Democrats being subjected to some particularly tough rhetoric. But the level of nastiness directed at Obama was no greater than the vicious attacks that had been leveled at President Bush, who along with Dick Cheney and other administration figures was regularly vilified not only by demonstrators but also by mainstream liberal politicians. Indeed, Packer acts as though left-wing talk-show hosts like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz, who repeatedly seek to delegitimize Republicans and conservatives, didn’t exist. And it is not as if Republicans receive no threats; some, like Rep. Eric Cantor, the new House majority leader, have also been subjected to this sort of indecent behavior.

Despite all this, Packer and the NJDC are determined to use the tragedy in Arizona to resurrect this failed effort to besmirch conservatives and other Obama critics as violent haters. There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of thing. In 1995, President Clinton used the Oklahoma City bombing to strike back at his critics, including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, even though Limbaugh and others critical of Clinton had nothing to do with the lunatics who perpetrated that crime.

Calls for civil debate are always appropriate, but those who wish to use this terrible crime to attempt to silence their opponents or to stifle legitimate public debate or activism are the ones who are crossing the bounds of decency today.

The shooting in Arizona is the sort of thing that obligates all sides in political debates to call a timeout. Right now our collective prayers are with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family as she struggles for life, as well as with the families of those who were murdered in this senseless evil attack. But acting in the spirit of Rahm Emanuel’s belief that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste, some on the left are determined to exploit this tragedy to advance their own partisan interests.

One example is a post by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who writes today that “It doesn’t matter why he did it.” The “he” is the alleged Arizona murderer Jared Loughner, a mentally unstable creature who thinks that the government is imposing “mind control” on the public via “grammar.”

Packer concedes that Loughner is not an advocate of any coherent ideology or movement that has any real link to anything that is part of contemporary political debates, including the Tea Party activists. But to him that is irrelevant, because conservative activists and pundits have spent the last two years criticizing President Obama and his policies, making violence inevitable.

It is true that a few people on the margins have indulged in rhetoric that can be termed attempts at the “delegitimization” of Obama, including those who have irrationally focused on myths about the president’s birthplace and religion. But on the left it has become a piece of conventional wisdom that all conservatives are somehow guilty of rhetoric that crosses the bounds of decency. Indeed, so sensitive are Packer and those who think like him that even the public reading of the Constitution this past week by members of Congress (an exercise that included Rep. Giffords, who proudly read the First Amendment) is “an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.”

Speaking in the same spirit, the National Jewish Democratic Council asserted: “It is fair to say — in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric — that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.”

Both Packer’s post and the NJDC statement reflect the liberal talking point of the last two years that has sought to maintain the pretense that the Tea Party and other fervent critics of Obama were nothing more than hate-filled nut cases rather than merely citizens who were asserting their constitutional right of dissent. But as the election in November proved, the Tea Party turned out in many respects to be more representative of mainstream America than the media and other elites who branded them as extremists.

It is true that the political debate in this country over the last two years has been heated, with President Obama and congressional Democrats being subjected to some particularly tough rhetoric. But the level of nastiness directed at Obama was no greater than the vicious attacks that had been leveled at President Bush, who along with Dick Cheney and other administration figures was regularly vilified not only by demonstrators but also by mainstream liberal politicians. Indeed, Packer acts as though left-wing talk-show hosts like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz, who repeatedly seek to delegitimize Republicans and conservatives, didn’t exist. And it is not as if Republicans receive no threats; some, like Rep. Eric Cantor, the new House majority leader, have also been subjected to this sort of indecent behavior.

Despite all this, Packer and the NJDC are determined to use the tragedy in Arizona to resurrect this failed effort to besmirch conservatives and other Obama critics as violent haters. There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of thing. In 1995, President Clinton used the Oklahoma City bombing to strike back at his critics, including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, even though Limbaugh and others critical of Clinton had nothing to do with the lunatics who perpetrated that crime.

Calls for civil debate are always appropriate, but those who wish to use this terrible crime to attempt to silence their opponents or to stifle legitimate public debate or activism are the ones who are crossing the bounds of decency today.

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A Man Like Bush

At the New Yorker, George Packer has a harsh assessment of George Bush’s Decision Points, a book he predicts “will not endure.”  Packer’s 3,300-word piece has only two sentences of praise, stuck in a parenthetical: “(The chapter on AIDS in Africa shows Bush at his best. His desire to display American caring led directly to a generous policy.)”

In the paragraph to which that parenthetical is appended, Packer relates that “one of the voices in the President’s ear [in the run-up to the Iraq war] was Elie Wiesel’s, speaking of ‘a moral obligation to act against evil.’” Packer writes that:

The words were bound to move a man like Bush. “Many of those who demonstrated against military action in Iraq were devoted advocates of human rights,” he says. “I understood why people might disagree on the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. But I didn’t see how anyone could deny that liberating Iraq advanced the cause of human rights.” Some of Bush’s critics found this argument specious and hypocritical; they failed to grasp the President’s profound need to be on the side of the redeeming angels.

Packer treats Bush’s motivation as an idiosyncratic psychological trait (apparently admirable if limited to a “desire to display caring” in Africa). But Bush’s reaction to Iraq tracked that of a knowledgeable observer writing in 2004:

I can’t wish the fall of Saddam’s regime undone. Before going to Iraq I knew abstractly that it was one of the worst in modern history and there’s been plenty of stiff competition. After five weeks there, my appreciation of its terribleness is more concrete and emotional. I know that’s hardly the best or only basis for foreign policy decisions, but in this case it’s decisive for me: The slaughter and misery of Iraqis (and their neighbors) justified the war. …

That was George Packer in a January 2004 Slate symposium of liberal hawks about a war they had supported but began abandoning in less than a year.

In his July 14, 2004, response to the British commission investigating the war, Tony Blair reached a similar conclusion about what Packer had called in 2004 “the moral imperative”:

And though in neither case [in Iraq and Afghanistan] was the nature of the regime the reason for conflict, it was decisive for me in the judgment as to the balance of risk for action or inaction. Both countries now face an uncertain struggle for the future. But both at least now have a future. The one country in which you will find an overwhelming majority in favor of the removal of Saddam is Iraq. I am proud of this country and the part it played and especially our magnificent armed forces, in removing two vile dictatorships and giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty.

Tony Blair was a man like Bush. So were the liberal hawks, for a while, but in contrast with that of Bush, their commitments did not endure.

At the New Yorker, George Packer has a harsh assessment of George Bush’s Decision Points, a book he predicts “will not endure.”  Packer’s 3,300-word piece has only two sentences of praise, stuck in a parenthetical: “(The chapter on AIDS in Africa shows Bush at his best. His desire to display American caring led directly to a generous policy.)”

In the paragraph to which that parenthetical is appended, Packer relates that “one of the voices in the President’s ear [in the run-up to the Iraq war] was Elie Wiesel’s, speaking of ‘a moral obligation to act against evil.’” Packer writes that:

The words were bound to move a man like Bush. “Many of those who demonstrated against military action in Iraq were devoted advocates of human rights,” he says. “I understood why people might disagree on the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. But I didn’t see how anyone could deny that liberating Iraq advanced the cause of human rights.” Some of Bush’s critics found this argument specious and hypocritical; they failed to grasp the President’s profound need to be on the side of the redeeming angels.

Packer treats Bush’s motivation as an idiosyncratic psychological trait (apparently admirable if limited to a “desire to display caring” in Africa). But Bush’s reaction to Iraq tracked that of a knowledgeable observer writing in 2004:

I can’t wish the fall of Saddam’s regime undone. Before going to Iraq I knew abstractly that it was one of the worst in modern history and there’s been plenty of stiff competition. After five weeks there, my appreciation of its terribleness is more concrete and emotional. I know that’s hardly the best or only basis for foreign policy decisions, but in this case it’s decisive for me: The slaughter and misery of Iraqis (and their neighbors) justified the war. …

That was George Packer in a January 2004 Slate symposium of liberal hawks about a war they had supported but began abandoning in less than a year.

In his July 14, 2004, response to the British commission investigating the war, Tony Blair reached a similar conclusion about what Packer had called in 2004 “the moral imperative”:

And though in neither case [in Iraq and Afghanistan] was the nature of the regime the reason for conflict, it was decisive for me in the judgment as to the balance of risk for action or inaction. Both countries now face an uncertain struggle for the future. But both at least now have a future. The one country in which you will find an overwhelming majority in favor of the removal of Saddam is Iraq. I am proud of this country and the part it played and especially our magnificent armed forces, in removing two vile dictatorships and giving people oppressed, almost enslaved, the prospect of democracy and liberty.

Tony Blair was a man like Bush. So were the liberal hawks, for a while, but in contrast with that of Bush, their commitments did not endure.

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George Packer’s Existential Crisis

Poor George Packer. The New Yorker’s staff writer is caught in a state of despair and crushing intellectual anguish. According to Packer,

Nine years later, the main fact of our lives is the overwhelming force of unreason. Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days against the actual image of a mob burning an effigy, or the imagined image of a man burning a mound of books. Reason tries in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up.

What has caused Packer’s spirits to sink so low? The debate surrounding the plan to build a mosque and community center near Ground Zero, Florida pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn the Koran (a threat he decided not to carry out), and the reaction it provoked. Granted, these were not great moments, but in the long sweep of history, I’m not sure they qualify as particularly troubling. And I’m quite sure that it’s not yet time to declare that Reason is Dead.

But wait; there are yet more lamentations from Packer:

In Wilsonian terms, we are around the year 1919 or 1920. The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

Who knew that an existential crisis could elicit such awful writing?

And, oh, by the way, what a convenient explanation Packer has manufactured for the failing presidency of his secular savior, Barack Obama (aka the Voice of Reason Incarnate). It turns out the president is simply too reasonable to be effective in this ugly, rambunctious, and deeply unreasonable world. Obama’s own failures and vanity, his own ineptness and philosophical deficiencies, have nothing at all to do with it. Obama is being brought low, you see, because he is simply too virtuous.

An epigraph for Packer’s times appear in Albert Camus’s The Fall: “In solitude and when fatigued, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet. When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters — an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah.”

Poor George Packer. The New Yorker’s staff writer is caught in a state of despair and crushing intellectual anguish. According to Packer,

Nine years later, the main fact of our lives is the overwhelming force of unreason. Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance these days against the actual image of a mob burning an effigy, or the imagined image of a man burning a mound of books. Reason tries in its patient, level-headed way to explain, to question, to weigh competing claims, but it can hardly make itself heard and soon gives up.

What has caused Packer’s spirits to sink so low? The debate surrounding the plan to build a mosque and community center near Ground Zero, Florida pastor Terry Jones’s threat to burn the Koran (a threat he decided not to carry out), and the reaction it provoked. Granted, these were not great moments, but in the long sweep of history, I’m not sure they qualify as particularly troubling. And I’m quite sure that it’s not yet time to declare that Reason is Dead.

But wait; there are yet more lamentations from Packer:

In Wilsonian terms, we are around the year 1919 or 1920. The noble mission to make the world safe for democracy ended inconclusively, and its aftermath has curdled into an atmosphere more like that of the Palmer raids and the second coming of the Klan. This is why Obama seems less and less able to speak to and for our times. He’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard in either Jalalabad or Georgia. An epigraph for our times appears in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel “Freedom”: “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

Who knew that an existential crisis could elicit such awful writing?

And, oh, by the way, what a convenient explanation Packer has manufactured for the failing presidency of his secular savior, Barack Obama (aka the Voice of Reason Incarnate). It turns out the president is simply too reasonable to be effective in this ugly, rambunctious, and deeply unreasonable world. Obama’s own failures and vanity, his own ineptness and philosophical deficiencies, have nothing at all to do with it. Obama is being brought low, you see, because he is simply too virtuous.

An epigraph for Packer’s times appear in Albert Camus’s The Fall: “In solitude and when fatigued, one is after all inclined to take oneself for a prophet. When all is said and done, that’s really what I am, having taken refuge in a desert of stones, fogs, and stagnant waters — an empty prophet for shabby times, Elijah without a messiah.”

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Liberalism’s Existential Crisis

As the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party continue their journey into the Slough of Despond, it’s interesting to watch Obama’ supporters try to process the unfolding events.

Some blame it on a failure to communicate. E.J. Dionne, Jr., for example, ascribes the Democrats’ problems to the fact that Obama “has chosen not to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all his achievements together.” Joe Klein offers this explanation: “If Obama is not reelected, it will be because he comes across as disdaining what he does for a living.” And John Judis points to the Obama administration’s “aversion to populism.”

Others are aiming their sound and fury at the American people. According to Maureen Dowd, “Obama is the head of the dysfunctional family of America — a rational man running a most irrational nation, a high-minded man in a low-minded age. The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown.” Jonathan Alter argues that the American people “aren’t rationally aligning belief and action; they’re tempted to lose their spleens in the polling place without fully grasping the consequences.” And Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg has written that “the biggest culprit in our current predicament” is the “childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.” Read More

As the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party continue their journey into the Slough of Despond, it’s interesting to watch Obama’ supporters try to process the unfolding events.

Some blame it on a failure to communicate. E.J. Dionne, Jr., for example, ascribes the Democrats’ problems to the fact that Obama “has chosen not to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all his achievements together.” Joe Klein offers this explanation: “If Obama is not reelected, it will be because he comes across as disdaining what he does for a living.” And John Judis points to the Obama administration’s “aversion to populism.”

Others are aiming their sound and fury at the American people. According to Maureen Dowd, “Obama is the head of the dysfunctional family of America — a rational man running a most irrational nation, a high-minded man in a low-minded age. The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown.” Jonathan Alter argues that the American people “aren’t rationally aligning belief and action; they’re tempted to lose their spleens in the polling place without fully grasping the consequences.” And Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg has written that “the biggest culprit in our current predicament” is the “childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large.”

For still others, Obama’s failures can be traced to James Madison. George Packer complains that Obama’s failures are in part institutional. He lists a slew of items on the liberal agenda items “the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing.” Paul Krugman warns that the Senate is “ominously dysfunctional” and insists that the way it works is “no longer consistent with a functioning government.” For Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum, “The evidence that Washington cannot function — that it’s ‘broken,’ as Vice President Joe Biden has said — is all around.” The modern presidency “has become a job of such gargantuan size, speed, and complexity as to be all but unrecognizable to most of the previous chief executives.”

Commentators such as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein place responsibility on “powerful structural forces in American politics that seem to drag down first-term presidents” (though Klein does acknowledge other factors). The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait pins the blame on “structural factors” and “external factors” that have nothing to do with Obama’s policies.

Then there are those who see the pernicious vast right-wing conspiracy at work. Frank Rich alerts us to the fact that the problem lies with “the brothers David and Charles Koch,” the “sugar daddies” who are bankrolling the “white Tea Party America.” Newsweek‘s Michael Cohen has written that, “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to good governance today is the Republican Party, which has adopted an agenda of pure nihilism for naked political gain.” And Mr. Krugman offers this analysis: “What we learned from the Clinton years is that a significant number of Americans just don’t consider government by liberals — even very moderate liberals — legitimate. Mr. Obama’s election would have enraged those people even if he were white. Of course, the fact that he isn’t, and has an alien-sounding name, adds to the rage.” Krugman goes on to warn that “powerful forces are promoting and exploiting this rage” — including the “right-wing media.” And if they come to gain power, “It will be an ugly scene, and it will be dangerous, too.”

What most of these commentators are missing, I think, are two essential points. First, the public is turning against Obama and the Democratic Party because the economy is sick and, despite his assurances and projections, the president hasn’t been able to make it well. And in some important respects, especially on fiscal matters, the president and the 111th Congress have made things considerably worse. Second, an increasing number of Americans believe Obama’s policies are unwise, ineffective, and much too liberal. They connect the bad results we are seeing in America to what Obama is doing to America.

But there’s something else, and something deeper, going on here. All of us who embrace a particular religious or philosophical worldview should be prepared to judge them in light of empirical facts and reality. What if our theories seem to be failing in the real world?

The truth is that it’s rather rare to find people willing to reexamine or reinterpret their most deeply held beliefs when the mounting evidence calls those beliefs into question. That is something most of us (myself included) battle with: How to be a person of principled convictions while being intellectually honest enough to acknowledge when certain propositions (and, in some instances, foundational policies) seem to be failing or falling short.

It’s quite possible, of course, that one’s basic convictions can remain true even when events go badly. Self-government is still the best form of government even if it might fail in one nation or another. And sometimes it is simply a matter of weathering storms until certain first principles are reaffirmed. At the same time, sometimes we hold to theories that are simply wrong, that are contrary to human nature and the way the world works, but we simply can’t let go of them. We have too much invested in a particular philosophy.

President Obama’s liberal supporters understand that he is in serious trouble right now; what they are doing is scrambling to find some way to explain his problems without calling into question their underlying political philosophy (modern liberalism). If what is happening cannot be a fundamental failure of liberalism, then it must be something else — from a “communications problem” to “structural factors” to a political conspiracy. And you can bet that if things continue on their present course, ideologues on the left will increasingly argue that Obama’s failures stem from his being (a) not liberal enough or (b) incompetent.

If the Obama presidency is seen as damaging the larger liberal project, they will abandon Obama in order to try to protect liberalism. They would rather do that than face an existential crisis.

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Why We Must Prevail in Afghanistan

I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.

I don’t agree with everything in George Packer’s short New Yorker article on Afghanistan, but after reviewing the problems with the current policy, he makes a very important point that other critics miss:

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

I think Packer is exactly right — which is why it’s so important that we prevail in Afghanistan. I believe our current strategy, under the leadership of General Petraeus and backed by what seems to be a freshly committed president, gives us a good chance to do that, notwithstanding the myriad difficulties we face. I will learn more, however, in Afghanistan itself, which is where I am currently headed.

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