A handful of brave American journalists have covered the Iraq story on the ground, among them John Burns, Dexter Filkins, Anthony Shadid, Jon Lee Anderson, and New Yorker staff writer George Packer. In his new book The Assassins’ Gate, Packer expands his account of the Second Iraq War and traces the history of his own ambivalence about that war. He is, of course, part of a group of commentators nominally viewed as left wing, including Michael Ignatieff, Samantha Power, Paul Berman, and Christopher Hitchens, who have committed the apostasy of supporting the war in Iraq, to varying degrees. Packer has also written on the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, the Al Jazeera satellite news channel, and, recently, Ernest Hemingway’s legacy.
After graduating from Yale in 1982, Packer served in the Peace Corps in West Africa. He has written two novels, The Half Man and Central Square; a political memoir, Blood of the Liberals; and The Village of Waiting, about his experience in Africa. He has also contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harper’s, and other publications. When he is not traveling on assignment, Packer lives in Brooklyn.
About Packer’s latest book, Tom Bissell astutely observes:
“To read The Assassins’ Gate with a pen in hand is to transform its pages’ blank white margins into forests of exclamation points. For instance, when told by a Pentagon official during the Gulf War that the United States ‘could change the [Iraqi] government and put in a democracy,’ then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney dourly said no, the Saudis would object. For instance, at President Bush’s very first national-security meeting in January 2001, the removal of Saddam Hussein was suggested. For instance, one of Donald Rumsfeld’s assistants took this note—a haiku of hubris—while his boss held forth on the afternoon of Sept. 11: ‘Best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’”
I must confess to the same hand wringing that Rick MacArthur so vituperatively condemns in his recent screed against Packer’s book, in which he called Packer “insufferable” and “a useful idiot.” As Packer says in the conversation that follows, “I basically found it impossible to say no to a war that would get rid of Saddam Hussein. It was not a Council on Foreign Relations strategic calculation. It was a really individual and non-rational feeling.” The great service that The Assassins’ Gate provides (though it’s no surprise) is the meticulous detailing of the blinding ideological zealousness with which the Bushists have prosecuted the war and the noble and quixotic efforts of many well-meaning soldiers and diplomats.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum: I am tempted to ask what you want to talk about, as there is a lot here. This is ambient and not a big thing, but I was struck by your fondness and appreciation of the city of Kirkuk in Kurdistan—
George Packer: Well, that’s subject to debate. A very controversial debate.
RB: I got the feeling it was a city, if there is a correlate, it’s a city like New Orleans. And I was reminded of Louis De Bernieres’s novel, Birds Without Wings, which took place in Anatolia around the turn of the 20th century, as modern Turkey is being formed. He describes a society in which everybody gets along—Jews, Armenians, Christians, and Muslims—
GP: That was called the Ottoman Empire.
RB: [laughs] Yes.
GP: Under the Ottoman Empire for several hundred years, remarkably in the part of the world that is now where people get along worst, there was coexistence. It wasn’t perfect—
RB: Well, where is?
GP: Yeah. There were group massacres and Jews and Christians were tolerated, but they weren’t first-class citizens because it was a Muslim caliphate. But basically it was multicultural. And Kirkuk was an Ottoman city and it reminds me of Istanbul in a little bit of a way. There is a Jewish quarter that no longer has Jews. There are some old Christian churches, very old. And there is the Kurdish influence that came down from the mountains in the form of shepherds turning into laborers, and then there are the Turkomen. Not Turkish but Turkomen, who come from Central Asia, and they claimed to be the original inhabitants. And then there are the Arabs, some of whom go way back also, and they are from the farmland around Kirkuk. And then there are the imported Arabs.
RB: No Chinese?
GP: No Chinese in Kirkuk. However, in Baghdad there is an excellent Chinese restaurant that was opened after the invasion. Apparently this one family specializes in post-war cuisine.
GP: They opened a restaurant in Kabul. They are known for going where it’s a little bit tough. And knowing there is going to be an influx of journalists and aid workers and officials, and [that] they are going to want Chinese food—so they opened a restaurant in Baghdad.
RB: Where are they going next? [laughs] Iran?
GP: Actually, people should follow their movements to see where geopolitics is headed. [laughs]
RB: Really. You wrote that Kirkuk was your favorite city.
GP: I loved Kirkuk. Because of the mix, because of a feeling of history there. And maybe because I could walk around there, at least until July 2004, without too much anxiety.
RB: Wouldn’t that be true of any place in Kurdistan?
GP: You know, Kirkuk is on the edge, and it’s a contested city. The Kurds say it’s part of Kurdistan, [but] the Arabs certainly don’t say that. I mean, “It’s Iraq!” And that’s why Saddam ethnically cleansed it and brought up all these Arabs from the south. But the thing is, it’s got a Kurdish dominant presence now—since the war. A lot of Kurds have come back who had been forced out, and so it is a more pro-American city than most of the rest of Iraq—southern Iraq below Kurdistan. It’s still dangerous as hell. There are assassinations and car bombs in Kirkuk almost every day. Back in the summer [of] 2004, it was still reasonably safe. You could stay in a hotel and walk around and go to the market. So I just got a feel for the city in a way I couldn’t in Baghdad or anywhere else. I like the cosmopolitan mix. It’s a more liberal, open place. And, frankly, the Arab cultural influence is weaker there.
RB: Arab culture or Arab religion?
GP: Really cultural. Tribal. Iraq is a very tribal country, something I learned after I got there. And frankly, I don’t find the rural and tribal nature of cities like Fallujah to be all that appealing. Whereas Kirkuk feels like a place where anyone can come—it’s not tribal in that way.
RB: Isn’t Iraq essentially Yugoslavia? That is, an imperial creation that really shouldn’t be one country?
GP: Well they were created at the same time—after World War I. Along with much of the rest of the world at the Paris Peace Conference. That’s very hard question because—
RB: Iraqis refer to themselves as such in your book, but do they really think of themselves as Iraqis and not as Sunnis or Shia or Kurds?
GP: You might compare them to Serbs and Croats. And Muslims in [the] former Yugoslavia who all speak the same language. Kurds, of course, speak Kurdish, but any Kurd who grew up before the ‘90s speaks Arabic, too. Shia and Sunni speak Arabic and they are Arabs. The Christians speak Arabic.
RB: There are no Jews left.
GP: They spoke Arabic when they were there. So there is a common language and there are many religious differences both within the Muslim population and with all the minorities. Does that mean it’s not a country? A lot of Iraqis insist that their identity as Iraqis goes back into history. There was a place—
GP: They love the ancient: Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. Yeah, there’s all this history and they are very proud of that. And they say that they have an identity. Saddam fed sectarianism. He privileged some groups and oppressed others. At a certain point it’s hard to know whether—I think identity is always fluid.
It’s been the bloodiest half-century imaginable in [the Middle East], and to Brent Scowcroft it looks stable because he is sitting at the Carlyle Group and his friends still welcome him when he travels to Saudi Arabia.
RB: Except when it’s not. [laughs]
GP: Except when it hardens. The thing about Kirkuk—someone in Kirkuk said to me, “Saddam is gone, but we are not done with him. He left behind these problems as if he wanted to get revenge.” The problems are these problems of identity. And this happens every time a society held together by terror and force to that degree comes undone. The lid is lifted. It’s happening in the former Soviet Union. It happened peacefully in Czechoslovakia. We now have the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They didn’t feel that they were a real country. But on the other hand, Bulgaria is still Bulgaria and—
GP: Is still Romania. And these were Ottoman provinces that could be argued—
RB: What about Macedonia?
GP: There is Greek Macedonia and then there is the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which is now, I guess, an independent country. I think it’s up to history and politics to decide these things. They aren’t immutable and genetic. And Iraq’s history has really messed up the identities of these—especially the young people don’t have any real sense of citizenship and a belonging to a state and a society. So they give their allegiances to their ayatollah or to their tribal leader or to some politician or fanatic group. They are stronger than the Iraqi identity right now. I really think these things can shift.
RB: This is a horrific story. Besides being a—choose a word: debacle, disaster, catastrophe, tragedy—and my inclination to criticism of this administration on a number of fronts, I’m struck by the lack of intellectual honesty. The inability to really look at a problem and say, “What’s the answer?” as opposed to having the answer—
GP: Daniel Bell the sociologist’s definition of an ideologue was someone who walks down the street saying, “I’ve got the answer. What’s the question?” And that is it; the architects of the war are ideologues. They preferred ideological correctness and then political convenience to facts, to actual concrete facts. Over and over again they rejected facts for ideology.
RB: You quote someone, a U.N. official, who made the acute observation to the effect that these guys seem to run contrary to the spirit of America, who historically have prided themselves on being pragmatists.
GP: That was Hassan Salame, the Lebanese adviser to the late Sergio de Mello [who was killed in an August 2003 hotel bombing in Baghdad]. He said, “We are not used to these Americans. We are used to the pragmatic, Army Corp of Engineers Americans.” The businessmen—
RB: Like Capt. John Prior?
GP: Exactly. Who, bless him, really understood the situation almost intuitively, and understood that it was all about the Iraqis. If the Iraqis perceived that they were benefiting, then this project would have a chance of succeeding. If they perceived that they were safe, it would have a chance of succeeding. If they saw no good results, if they were unprotected, if they thought the Americans were there for nefarious reasons, it would not succeed. He understood the way—way, beyond what his superiors back in Washington, back at the Pentagon understood. And a lot other people did, too. Part of the tragedy of this story is the sheer waste of human effort and of idealism.
RB: Despite my discouragement, and I am sure that of many others, I wouldn’t ascribe evil motives to the war’s advocates. I accept that they believe they were doing something good—
GP: Ideology. I told this history of neo-conservatism because the war can’t be understood without understanding that it’s about ideas. It’s about the way people see the world and this particular group who are very insular and suspicious of critics, of skeptics in the State Department, the CIA, the press—what they consider the bureaucracies, the status quo, they were like a revolutionary vanguard that came to power and governed the way revolutionaries tend to—which is to say, a litmus test for loyalty and ideological purity, over and over. Of course they didn’t slaughter their political enemies, but they did freeze them out of meetings. Again and again, you see this pattern of their believing [that] if they just somehow won this fight against the State Department, Iraq would take care of itself. It was kind of crazy thinking.
RB: OK, let’s say you have a new theory of warfare and you wage this blitzkrieg, but to not even consider the possibility of an insurgency, not to recognize an insurgency and then not have a minimum of Arab-language people on the ground—
GP: Yeah, they still don’t. It’s as Hassan Salame said, “These are not the Americans we are used to.” These are more like missionaries. They came with an agenda. I actually reminded him that in Asia they would be more familiar as types. In the struggle against Chinese communism and in Southeast Asia. They are Graham Greene’s Quiet American, who went to Vietnam from this city [Boston] with a shelf full of books on democracy and as well as on [chuckles] marital relations, and ended up getting his hands very bloody. That’s the prototype. Unfortunately, it’s had a big comeback during this war. Honestly, for me there are conflicts everywhere, all of that is true, and yet you look at the career State Department, CIA types, you look at the way we have always dealt with the Middle East, which is what this man is referring to, [and] it’s pretty cynical, “Pump us your oil and we’ll leave our dictators in place.” And, in fact, [we] will shore them up with massive amounts of aid until your societies are so angry that they have an explosion, which is what’s happening in Egypt right now, in slow motion. The Muslim brotherhood coming up. That’s not been a winning—Brent Scowcroft recently said in the New Yorker, “We got 50 years of peace.” Well, it ended on Sept. 11. In other words, Scowcroft—
RB: That’s bullshit. Gil Scott Heron has a song called “The Military and the Monetary” [originally called “Work for Peace”] and says something about [how] “peace is not the absence of war; it is the absence of the rumors of war and the preparations for war.”
RB: When did we have that? Not in my lifetime. To say there has been peace for 50 years, tell that to the Israelis—
GP: Exactly, and also tell the Iranians and the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis and the Lebanese and the Syrians. It’s been the bloodiest half-century imaginable in that part of the world, and to Brent Scowcroft it looks stable because he is sitting at the Carlyle Group and his friends still welcome him when he travels to Saudi Arabia. But it was a totally untenable policy in the Middle East. The problem is the only people who had a massive critique and a new agenda for what to do were these ideologues who then led us to Iraq [again], and you have to choose between Richard Perle and Brent Scowcroft.
RB: [laughs] The Prince of Darkness.
GP: [Perle] seems like an idealist who wants to bring light and air to the region, and Scowcroft seems like an old, procrustean—
RB: I have this stereotype, since the Central American adventures of the ‘80s, of the State Department types and the CIA people as Yalie, Ivy League guys who needed excitement in their lives and got assigned to these out-of-the-way places where no one seemed to give a shit, and they began to do whatever they wanted, pal around with generals and engage in hypocritical behavior.
GP: That’s sort of the old CIA.
GP: These are different organizations now.
RB: By the way, when I presented [spy novelist and former CIA employee] Charles McCarry with my sense of the CIA, he adamantly disagreed. In fact, he characterized the people he worked with as being very idealistic.
GP: Well, I come out of the left. I got arrested down here at the federal building, at the Thomas O’Neil Federal Building, in 1986 for protesting the war in Nicaragua. If you read Blood of the Liberals, you know I grew up in a family where military culture was unknown. My father served in World War II but never talked about it. The atmosphere was Vietnam in my childhood and there was hostility to the military, certainly to the CIA. To be a diplomat seemed like an old-fashioned career that no one did anymore. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two or three years around these people—soldiers, State Department officials, government bureaucrats, even a few spooks, and [pauses] there’s a lot to admire. What I was struck by in Iraq was how they were being undermined by their leadership, and they knew it on some level. It was dawning on them that they were, in a sense, being hung out to dry. And to me, that’s a more interesting story than the story that I grew up with in the ‘60s and ‘70s of just the fuck-ups and the assholes in the government. This is a different picture.
RB: There was probably some distortion in our view—there must have been some good people.
I think my fiction is old-fashioned in the influences that I have as a writer. But in non-fiction, I feel I have succeeded more at emulating the 19th-century novel than I ever did in fiction. I think I work better with something at hand, some givens, some facts, rather than the blank page.
GP: Oh my God, I’ve met them now. The old Vietnam hands, some of them have reappeared in Iraq and there’s a lot of idealism. There’s also a certain amount of willful blindness toward some ugly policies and ventures, certainly in Vietnam. But why do they keep doing it? People who go to Iraq are risking their lives in a serious way.
RB: You went to Iraq and risked your life. You don’t strike me as a war junkie.
GP: No, I’m not. I’m really not. Some journalists are.
GP: It’s kind of like saying, “I smoke but I’m not hooked, [laughs] I could quit anytime.” Actually, I have quit a thousand times. Yeah, well, there are some for sure.
RB: It seems to be more of a continuum—there’s a level of addiction in all of you.
GP: I am drawn. I have traveled in the Third World all my adult life. I have been to some scary places in Africa. I love travel. But I what I love about it are the human encounters, the learning and the connections that you make. And I am an Iraq junkie. I wouldn’t say I am war junkie but Iraq has gotten to me in a way that nothing since I was a Peace Corps volunteer ever has. And I am going back next month.
GP: [draws in a deep breath] Its huge history. I felt when I arrived in Baghdad, July 2003, on my first trip, I immediately had this feeling of, “This is huge. This is important.” It’s fascinating. Complex morally [and] politically.
RB: That’s what you felt when you arrived. What sent you there?
GP: Because I knew a guy named Kannan Makiya, who is an Iraqi writer. I met him here in Cambridge. We got to know each other over the course of five or eight years, and then, when the war was imminent, I wrote about him, and then I felt like—having spent a bit of time on this, an intellectual interest—I want to go and see. This has been in all in the hypothetical or the speculative, “Let’s go and see what it’s like.” That was a kind of a dispassionate interest, but once I got there—actually I drove in—
GP: Across the desert. Knowing this is Iraq, where Saddam ruled, this is where wars have been fought. [whispers] Here are American soldiers. It was just astounding to see American soldiers riding around, standing at the border crossing and then Baghdad—legendary, stricken, decayed, looted. And the Iraqis kind of crawling out from the ruins, looking around in this blinding light, and trying to figure things out. Psychologically, as a novelist, or perhaps a former novelist, I just thought, “This is huge and gripping and I want to know everything.”
RB: You say “former novelist,” meaning you don’t see yourself writing fiction? Or you don’t have a need to write novels? It’s not the same buzz?
GP: Well, I want to write fiction again. Let’s say “once and future novelist,” because right now I can’t claim to be thinking about fiction very much. I am totally engrossed in this story.
RB: It doesn’t go unnoticed that you employ narrative devices—you start out with Kannan Makiya, and the book ends with you and him, in his renovated Cambridge house. And there is the bittersweet story of the soldier and his father from Des Moines—his poor, bereft father.
GP: Just carrying the whole load of the war on his shoulders, almost. And then these Iraqis, the psychiatrist and the woman in Kirkuk.
RB: What’s the difference between fiction and non-?
GP: The difference is invention.
RB: Plus, you don’t have to go there. [laughs]
GP: I get to go there. I see it the other way around. I get to go there. I’m given the material. I find it—it’s a given. It’s not invented. It’s in my notebooks, in my recordings and my memory, and then I have to organize it and shape it, which is the pleasure, and you are absolutely right: When I wrote Assassins’ Gate, I had in mind the model of a 19th-century novel full of both big historical events and individuals being driven by those events, whose lives the reader follows through the course of history. I have always loved reading that kind of book. I think my fiction is old-fashioned in the influences that I have as a writer. But in non-fiction, I feel I have succeeded more at emulating the 19th-century novel than I ever did in fiction. I think I work better with something at hand, some givens, some facts, rather than the blank page. It’s just a different kind of imagination. But I would certainly like to write more novels.
RB: How much was left out from your raw material? Could this have been a bigger, denser story?
GP: Actually there is not a lot left out. I made very efficient use of my material this time. Partly because I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in Iraq—maybe five months—compared to some journalists.
RB: Who is there a lot? John Burns?
GP: Burns is there. He is largely working out of the [New York Times] bureau or the green zone. Dexter Filkins has been out in the field in Iraq probably more than any other reporter. He’s a terrific reporter. Anthony Shadid was there for the first year, year and a half. He hasn’t been there much lately. No, I had to write this quickly. Things were happening as I was writing it, which made it difficult, but I was very focused. I have never been as disciplined about using the material efficiently and quickly and getting to the point. I think my prose in this book is tighter. Even though it’s the longest book I have ever written, it’s still tighter.
RB: Who’s your editor?
GP: Jonathan Galassi at FSG [Farrar, Straus & Giroux]. Fantastic man and a great editor.
RB: And the big cheese there.
GP: And a big cheese, and a great friend. Warm and unlike what you would imagine a kingpin of publishing to be like. He’s a poet, a literary man. He’s not a businessman. He’s running a business. He came to this through literature, and he’s translating [Italian poets Eugenio] Montale and [Giacomo] Leopardi—so he is not a typical mogul.
RB: Wonderful that publishing houses run by such people still exist.
GP: At the moment I can hardly believe my good fortune. I’m at the New Yorker, which is a wonderful place that will send me back to Iraq and pay me to write this stuff, and I am with FSG, which is a great publisher.
RB: Jon Lee Anderson was the first New Yorker writer in Iraq. First he was in Afghanistan.
GP: He is much more of a war correspondent—I won’t say a war junkie.
RB: He says he’s not, either. He has a wife and kids, so I tend to believe him.
GP: He’s covered many wars, and he’s a physically very brave guy, and [is] just seasoned. When you are around him you feel probably nothing bad is going to happen. Although we had one moment together when something bad almost did happen. Probably the single worst moment in Iraq. We were driving in from Jordan with a Jordanian driver and another journalist on board, and we had somehow lost the other vehicles in our little convoy, so we were alone and about halfway between Ramadi and Fallujah, which is about the baddest of the badlands. We came to an American convoy and all the highway traffic had crowded up about 100 feet behind the tail gunner, who was a kid—you could see his face. He was a kid with a 50-caliber that he was waving back and forth, and you could see he was really scared. Our driver, who I had come to trust on a previous visit, kept trying to approach. And the kid kept waving him back, and we were yelling at him, “Pull back, pull back.” Finally [our driver] started to swerve across the highway divider and a couple of warning shots came our way into the pavement. And he started driving up the wrong way up the other side of the highway, pulling alongside the convoy.
RB: [laughs] Oh no.
GP: And then we got a flat tire, which must have been from the warning shots. So there we are on the side of the highway. And suddenly no one is there. The convoy has moved on. All the traffic has moved on. We are totally alone, with a flat, and the spare is under mounds of luggage and body armor and computers, and while he is taking the time to change the tire, a black sedan appears to the right, on a berm off in the desert, and begins to drive alongside and pass us. There are four guys staring at us. They go down and they take a right (I’m looking in the mirror). And begin to come up the highway toward us. And I had this sense of being like a wounded animal with a tiger or a lion or a shark, really a raw feeling of fear. I know Jon Lee was feeling something similar. I honestly thought, this might be it. There had been no kidnappings yet, no beheadings, but we were the fattest target you have ever seen. And the car went and cased us and went past us and then did the same thing ahead and then turned back and finally, on its last pass, when I really do think it was going to come alongside us, the other vehicles in our convoy pulled up. Our friends were there and the car drove on. It was a really hair-raising 20 minutes.
RB: So why go back? You can’t really go anywhere now.
GP: Yeah, it’s very hard. I can do—I’m trying to arrange it now, meet Iraqis in safe places. Like in a hotel or in certain offices, if I travel in the city carefully. I have the right translator/driver, maybe a couple of low-profile guards. And then to get out of Baghdad you have to go with the military. That’s OK. What I want to see is the real start of the training and the counter-insurgency, which is now supposedly the strategy. They have embraced what they had rejected.
RB: Are the troops now getting armor and the Humvees being refitted?
GP: You hear that it’s still not happening in some areas. That there are still shortages. We’ll find out. But I just feel the need to get a fresh—I’m not done with this story. We’re not done with it.
RB: No doubt you are curious to see what happens after the elections.
GP: Yeah, I am. I want to hear what Sunnis have to say about the elections. There is a big debate that’s begun in this country, and it’s going to continue for the next six months or so, about whether we should stay or leave. And I want to be part of that debate, and to be part of it I feel like I can’t just opine from New York. I need some facts.
RB: You began supporting the Iraq war, if I recall correctly?
GP: It was not vocal. I didn’t feel decided [enough] about it to put my name on an article that said, “I’m pro-war.” The reporting I did before the war was more of: What are the questions here and what are the difficulties it poses whether you are a liberal or a conservative, [or] whatever? I basically found it impossible to say no to a war that would get rid of Saddam Hussein. It was not a Council on Foreign Relations strategic calculation. It was a really individual and non-rational feeling.
RB: Can I assume whatever level your support was that it was based on a belief that war would be executed intelligently and competently?
GP: I had worries.
GP: Based on—
RB: On who was in charge.
GP: Based on knowing something about Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush, and feeling there were signs in the weeks before the war that the post-war [would be] really chaotic and they hadn’t focused on it. You could pick up that there were big arguments going on within the government that were not resolved. And I also worried that we had completely failed at diplomacy and were going it basically alone. And the rest of the world was howling in protest.
RB: Not the Fijians.
GP: [laughs] The Mongolians and the Estonians. I don’t think their people are. I was in the Ivory Coast when the war began, and that was probably the only country on earth where there were American flags waving. They had their own reasons for doing it. They hated the French. But it gave me a slightly distorted view of international opinion. I had a lot of worries. But on the other hand, you’re right. I thought Afghanistan had been mishandled but not utterly botched. I thought the Bush administration was ruthless, not incompetent. They are both.
RB: Bad combination.
GP: It’s a very bad combination and they are related to each other. It’s the ideological ruthlessness that has made them incompetent. But I had no idea how—
RB: Who could?
GP: Mendacious and how [pauses] destructive they could be. When you think about certain things, like Rumsfeld halting the deployment of the follow-up units because Baghdad fell quickly, and as far as he was concerned, that was the end of it.
RB: I loved his “Shit happens” when he was commenting on the looting—like he would say that if it happened domestically.
GP: It was both utterly cynical, like, “It’s not our problem. We did topple the regime and we are, under the Geneva conventions, responsible, but it’s not our problem.” What he said was, “Freedom is untidy,” [that] free people are free to make mistakes and commit crime and do bad things. Cynical, and also incredibly naïve to think that freedom is looting and looting is freedom. Instead, it’s anarchy. It’s the opposite. As I have been telling groups on my book tour, it’s a pre-Enlightenment political view.
GP: [It’s a view that] doesn’t understand Locke, that freedom is actually a contract in which you give up certain things and freedoms in order not to be killed.
RB: Good thing the U.S. is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court. [laughs] I was surprised to see Christopher Hitchens so positively blurb your book. He has gone out of his way to be very supportive of this regime. I understand his hatred of Islamic fundamentalists.
GP: But what about fundamentalist Christians? [laughs]
RB: Them, too.
GP: But they are his allies now. And fundamentalist Jews, too. He’s a complicated man. I like him.
RB: Me too.
GP: I found him engaging, witty, smart.
RB: In person, charming.
GP: He is actually a gentleman, which is a surprise. There was an odd little personal history behind that blurb or behind the review he wrote for Publisher’s Weekly, which became the blurb. He has been very good to me, very nice. What happened was, the week after his review appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, a very favorable review, the New Yorker excerpted the chapter about the Des Moines father, and in that chapter, which had been written, of course, before that review, I took a shot at Hitchens for being way too overconfident and arrogant about how things were going in post-war Iraq, going out with Wolfowitz, spending a few days and deciding that he had seen what the rest of the press corps had missed. That was a little more than I could take. It represented a kind of thinking—“defend at all costs”—that I think is part of the problem in Iraq. So I took him to task. He is in the book earlier, too, in a more—he was a figure who was important in the buildup to the war. He happened to be a leftist who became a pro-war figure. Interesting, wasn’t it. But it must have seemed incredibly ungracious to him for that chapter to appear a week after he just gotten though saying I had written an indispensable book. So he struck back in a letter in the New Yorker and in a piece in Slate.
GP: In which he took me to task for various things. And then he said something slighting about me to the New York Observer. Later he sent me an email basically expressing regret. And that was enough. And now if I see him—I invited him to the book party—if I see him it will be pleasant. That’s the kind of guy he is. If you are Christopher Hitchens you have to let go of some of your grudges, otherwise all of humanity will eventually be your lifelong enemy. [laughs]
It’s narcissism. It’s all about us. Don’t Iraqi lives and Iraq’s future matter at all? Bush is hated more than Saddam by one side, and the other side so hates liberals that they look at Iraq and say, “But that school was painted last week.”
RB: It’s interesting about how some people respond to him. When they agreed with him, they loved him, as usual, and when they disagreed, they found him to have all sorts of flaws. I don’t agree with him on the war, [but] I still admire him and think he must be paid attention to. He is an amusing stylist.
GP: He’s at his best writing about literature and history, I think, better than his political writing, which lately has suffered from certain excesses of partisanship.
RB: He’s under siege.
GP: And he will not back off. That’s it: He’s under siege and he is backed up and he is going to keep digging in.
RB: Which is why I was surprised by his blurb—but then again, I think he is intellectually honest.
GP: Yes, and some of the criticisms in my book of even people like him, or certainly of his new friends in the administration, although he wouldn’t make those criticisms, he is honest enough to accept them. The book has been far better-received on the right then on the left. I expected a little of that. It ranges from essentially a positive reception that’s closed around a critique that I am not sufficiently apologetic or have not seen the total folly of ever supporting such an enterprise. That’s in a couple of reviews in liberal left publications. They were respectful but critical. Then you move toward the blogosphere and even some well-known writers who, because my book was getting some attention, zeroed in on me as the Second Coming of Hitchens.
RB: [laughs] I’ve seen Paul Berman savaged for his position.
GP: Yeah, Paul has been battered by a certain kind of liberal who seems to think that there is nothing worse than a Paul Berman. I am now that person for this month. Clearly they haven’t read my work, or else—or if they did they didn’t take any of it in. That’s been where the criticism has come from. The right has cozied up and said, “A worthy war critic.” That’s one reviewer in the policy review at the Hoover Institute.
RB: What about the White House?
GP: They don’t read.
RB: The State Department?
GP: Yeah, I talked to a couple of State people and heard from a few, and they have been incredibly complimentary. Military people, also. The ideologues in the administration or just the political hacks, they don’t want to know. They don’t want to read my book. Elsewhere in the administration, where the political temperature isn’t quite so high, it’s been not just read but kind of accepted. The thing that is most gratifying is that I have been able to lay down a narrative of this war that will help to shape the perception of what happened and why for a long time, and it will not let people off the hook. They are on the hook now. Not, obviously because of my book, but I have put it in between covers of a book, and that’s being read by influential thinkers in Washington and elsewhere who haven’t had the sustained narrative treatment before. There’s just [a] certain advantage to a book that a magazine article or a speech or interview—none of that can get you—
RB: What happened to Jon Lee Anderson’s book [The Fall of Baghdad]? There were detailed accounts of failures. Was it paid attention to?
GP: The difference is the Washington side of mine. Jon Lee and Anthony Shadid have unforgettably vivid accounts, in Jon Lee’s case of the buildup and then the fall of the city, in Anthony’s case pretty much the first year of the occupation. They didn’t really have the American end of it, the debates, the politics, and the policies, and that’s what at least some readers are responding to, in my case. That it connects those things that we all saw on the ground to the people and the decisions that they made back here.
RB: You are going back. For a fixed period of time?
GP: About three weeks, maybe four. And I’ll embed and go see some soldiers. I want to see the relationship between an Iraqi officer and an American adviser—there is now this advisory function that is really going to become the key. And I want to see that. And I’ll write a piece for the New Yorker. I should really move on.
RB: At what point will you have settled with this and then be able to go on to another story?
GP: I went to Lagos in early August and haven’t written the piece yet, which is largely because of Iraq and my book. Africa is always going to be of interest to me. Lagos was fascinating. I am a little worried that Iraq could become for me what Vietnam became for some others. They kept saying that they were going to move on to other subjects, but some of them never did. It will take a little while. This has been too traumatic and big and catastrophic. And moving. I have grown through this experience, and so it’s part of me in a way that I don’t want to shed.
RB: I just read a novel about Africa by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation, about child soldiers in some unspecified country.
GP: How is it?
RB: Gripping and harrowing.
GP: I have to read that.
RB: Why has Central America gone off the screen? It hasn’t gotten better there.
RB: For people like you, not for the government.
GP: Or people like Paul Berman. He spent time there. He wrote about it, controversially. He still loves the poetry and the music. I have never been there, I think because political people, political thinkers and writers are riveted by the Titanic struggle that we seem to have stumbled into with Islamism.
RB: Isn’t all of one piece?
GP: Why doesn’t Central America fit? It’s a good question. The Cold war organized the world in a way. There really were two sides. There were the non-aligned nations, but basically they were either sympathetic in one direction or another. And communism spoke to the masses in the Third World, and we were trying to speak to them in a different way in order to woo them away, and there was a great ideological battle between the West and the communist world. That riveted intellectuals in the post-World War II era. Whether you were Irving Kristol or Irving Howe, whether you were Stephen Spender or Orwell, that was what you had to contend with. There is almost a longing for that kind of epic scale and clarity and grandeur, and for some people Sept. 11 seemed to provide it.
RB: What was it that Hitchens said?
GP: He felt a sense almost of gratification. The battle was joined. Suit up, gird your loins. There has been a lot of that among intellectuals. Now there has also been a reaction to it—an overreaction among some liberals, intellectuals who now practically deny there is such a thing as a worldwide—at least Muslim worldwide—movement, that is. [pauses] that is potentially totalitarian. I saw a film the other night. I’m in a group called The New York Institute of Humanities—Lawrence Wechsler directs it.
RB: He’s trying to launch a magazine called Omnivore.
GP: I think one issue came out. It had some great writers. He’s a man of many interests, eclectic, and he used to write wonderful pieces for the New Yorker. But he showed this film at the institute called The Power of Nightmares. It’s a three-hour essay by a British filmmaker, really inventive use of archival footage. Basically telling the story of the rise of two ideological movements—Islamism—and “In 1949, a Jewish refugee, Leo Strauss, comes to America; in 1949, an Egyptian writer named Sayyid Qutb, they both arrived in America. They both were, in a way, seeking some moral regeneration in the midst of relativism and materialism in the modern world.” That’s the premise. It’s kind of ingenious. It ends up basically saying Al Qaeda doesn’t exist. It’s all a construct. It’s a construct of the neo-conservatives and a construct of the Islamists. They need each other. They have joined the battle together, each side requiring the other in order for there to be this battle. But in a way, it’s all figment and fantasy. That idea is gaining traction among liberal intellectuals as a reaction to Bush and his foreign policy.
RB: As a kid I was drawn to the Cuban revolution and was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and China, basically as a reaction and rejection of what I felt was distasteful American jingoist attitudes.
GP: Not to mention: How cool was Che Guevara? It’s exactly the same thing. It’s just taken less time. Everything is speeded up. People compare Iraq and Vietnam. Well, Iraq is Vietnam on speed.
GP: And this is the same. It took, for your generation between World War II and the rise of that kind of New Left sympathy for communism, that was about 15 to 20 years. But between Sept. 11 and some of the stuff I see in the New York Review of Books, which basically said the Iranian people must want to be ruled by a theocracy because they elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. My girlfriend was there during the election. That was not what happened. That’s not what the Iranian people want. But that was in the New York Review of Books. That’s the liberal respectability these days—to deny that there is anything out there by that by a name that deserves at least condemnation. Now we are in a place that if the Pentagon plants stories in the Iraqi press it is considered a grosser offense by the way people react to it, than if 36 police recruits are blown up at the police academy in central Baghdad by jihadis.
RB: That’s out of whack.
GP: Totally out of whack. But that is what Iraq and Bush have done to political thinking in this country. You have to declare which team you are on. That’s something I have resisted as much as possible. It’s too important for that.
RB: What is really American is this macho competition that makes winning the point.
GP: And depending which team you are on, you want to win different things, but it is to win.
RB: And crush your opponent.
GP: And not only that, it’s narcissism. It’s all about us. Don’t Iraqi lives and Iraq’s future matter at all? Bush is hated more than Saddam by one side, and the other side so hates liberals that they look at Iraq and say, “But that school was painted last week.” So why is the media so negative? It’s out of whack.