Once more unto the breach with George Packer
Or, liberal interventionism hits a wall
George Packer is the consummate liberal hawk. The former New Yorker staff writer, now employed by the Atlantic, supported the U.S. invasions and bombings of Haiti, Serbia, Libya, Afghanistan, and most unforgettably Iraq — always, crucially, on “humanitarian” grounds. Packer’s signature move is the agonized hand-wring (in 2013, he debated himself on whether the U.S. should escalate its bombing of Syria). This is almost always followed by a conclusion that, regrettably, the bombs should fly once again. And, just as often, they do.
So it got my attention when Packer wrote an essay last month titled “A New Theory of American Power.” Its thesis and subhead: “The United States can—and must—wield its power for good.”
The first thing to note is that the headline is misleading. Packer doesn’t present any theory of American power at all. Moreover, what he does (hand-wringingly) propose isn’t new. His bottom line is the same as it has been since his career began in the 1990s: “a decent world isn’t possible without liberalism, and liberalism can’t thrive without U.S. engagement.” By “engagement,” Packer means the expression of American power. And by power, of course, he mostly means bombs.
What is new, for Packer, is the way he wants to see those bombs delivered. But his latest change of tactic is telling.
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Packer was evidently chastened by the recent victory of the Taliban over the U.S. military after twenty years of war — or, as he calls it, passively, “the fall of Afghanistan.” (He also presumably is still reeling from the American-made catastrophe in Iraq that he helped foment — though there is no mention of it in the essay.)
As Packer writes: “With the withdrawal last year of the final troops from Kabul, restraint appeared to have won an uncontested victory.” (“Restraint,” for the uninitiated, is simply the voguish nickname for a foreign-policy school skeptical of the use of U.S. military force. It’s exemplified by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a D.C. think tank which, in the words of some of its founders, is “comprised of libertarians, realists, and progressives … united solely by opposition to the Iraq War.”)
Yet Packer is triumphant: that “uncontested victory,” he says, “lasted six months.” And what has vindicated a life of neo-Wilsonian interventionism? The Russian invasion of Ukraine. That war, the journalist says, has upended the restrainers’ “fixed views of international politics: that states pursue rational interests, not mad dreams of ancient glory; that U.S. leaders manufacture intelligence for their own ends; that imperialism is a uniquely American sin.”
It would be too much to say that this is entirely a strawman argument. There are definitely realist members of the restrainer coalition who believe the first (especially John Mearsheimer), and likely some naïve adherents who believe the third. (The second has simply been historically — though by no means exhaustively — true, and is a weird thing for Packer to dispute.)
But by the same token, to say that those are the key pillars of restrainer or anti-imperialist thought, or the dominant critiques of liberal interventionism writ large is absurd, and a clear attempt at avoiding the actual debate.
As evidence of the terms of actual critique, we need look no further than Packer’s own policy prescription, which he draws from the new facts on the ground:
Ukraine shows one way for America to use its power on behalf of freedom: Instead of sending troops to fight and die for democratic illusions in inhospitable countries, send arms to help an actual democracy repel a foreign invader. No U.S. troops, no meddling in civil wars, no nation building, no going it alone. Collaborate closely with allies and take measures to avoid catastrophe.
First of all, congratulations to George Packer on discovering the concept of a proxy war! He calls this “the Biden doctrine,” but as he must know, shipping weapons — and a few on-the-ground special operations commandos, C.I.A. agents, etc. — to tip the balance in foreign wars has been a favorite U.S. tactic for well over half a century.Yet right there, in that passage, are several of the actual critiques of liberal intervention and other forms of neo-colonialism: that it involves meddling destructively in foreign civil wars, that it entails costly and chauvinistic “nation-building,” that it spurns international norms and equitable alliances, that it has a demonstrated propensity for ending up in catastrophe. And those are indeed all things to avoid!
Hence the telling bit: Packer is siding with a faction of restrainers against the hawks when it comes to Ukraine. Don’t forget: early on in the war, the bog-standard position among liberal hawks was to compare Putin’s invasion with Hitler’s conquest of the Sudetenland in 1938 and/or Poland in 1939. Some made this argument explicit, such as former NATO commander and retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who called for a “humanitarian no-fly zone” over Ukraine — a course he openly acknowledged would be “essentially an act of war.” Benjamin Wittes called for regime change in Moscow. Fiona Hill persuaded Packer’s colleague Susan Glasser that we were already in World War III. Glasser dutifully asked: “If the goal is to avoid a conflict in which we are already fighting, then does the rest of Washington’s approach to Russian aggression need to be reconsidered?”
By advocating for the status quo — a bloody proxy war that, thus far, neither NATO or Russia has seen fit to ratchet into direct conflict — Packer is implicitly saying that those who argued for a degree of caution (restraint, if you will) had it right.
But perhaps Ukraine is a special case. Putin is, as even Anne Applebaum has been forced to admit, deterring more aggressive U.S. and European intervention on Ukraine’s behalf with his nuclear threats. What about intervening in a different kind of country — perhaps one that doesn’t have nuclear weapons (yet)?
For this stage of the thought experiment, Packer chooses Iran. “What,” he asked, “can the U.S. do to support Iran’s democratic protests that wouldn’t ultimately undermine the cause and, eventually, bipartisan backing at home?” He rules out broader sanctions (“would further the destruction of Iran’s middle class,” he laments). And can’t withdraw from the nuclear talks (though he insists this would be “the right thing to do”), because he reckons it would “not affect the regime’s behavior.” He simply rules out “arming insurgents or trying to manipulate regime change” — both of which, incidentally, the C.I.A. has done in Iran in the past.
So what does Packer suggest? Cheering Biden’s decision to give Iranian demonstrators “strong rhetorical support and practical help in the form of access to satellite communications.”
This is funny in the context of the piece, given that a few paragraphs earlier Packer blasted Yale law professor Sam Moyn for “advis[ing] the West to follow the example of countries in the ‘global south’ and criticize the [Russian invasion of Ukraine] without doing a thing to stop it.” How quickly idle criticism converts into “strong rhetorical support” when you can’t think of anything better to do.
I don’t mean to suggest that I disagree with Packer on either of these fronts: Giving weapons to the Ukrainians — while not without many kinds of risk, and an undeniable bonanza for the military-industrial complex — does seem to have prevented even larger-scale Russian atrocities without exploding into thermonuclear war so far. And the U.S. government getting directly involved in Iranian anti-government protests would help no one, least of all the protesters. But it’s notable nonetheless that, despite himself, Packer is clearly struggling with his own “deep skepticism” about “American global hegemony,” at least the way it has been applied in practice. And it’s that unwillingness to admit what he has gotten so fundamentally wrong for so long that leads Packer back into his usual blind spots.
The essay itself begins with an attempt at psychoanalysis: “A national mood disorder afflicts America,” Packer writes. “We overdo our foreign crusades, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between, where an ordinary country would try to reach a fine balance.”
To which I can only say: Huh? What would a well-cooked “foreign crusade” have looked like, in, say, Iraq? Would it have been more like Kosovo, 1999 — a war which, as Packer’s New Yorker colleague Masha Gessen has noted, “ended the era of cooperation and aspirational friendship between Russia and the U.S. that had begun after the Cold War” — putting Moscow and Washington on the path to conflict, if for now by proxy, in Ukraine.
More importantly, who is “overdoing” what “retrenchment,” and where? The U.S. still operates at least 750 military bases in 81 countries and territories — on every continent except Antarctica — and those are just the ones we know about. At any given time, most of the U.S. Navy’s eleven active carrier strike groups are deployed without challenge across the Atlantic, Pacific, and often the Indian and Arctic Oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. They patrol, largely at will, along with dozens of nuclear attack and other submarines, bombers, and drones, available for scattering at any given moment to almost any point of the globe. In addition to Ukraine and the saber-rattling aginst China, a proxy war against Iran continues — in Yemen and elsewhere. As do a series of shadow wars, a cadet branch of the still-ongoing War on Terror, in at least 22 countries of Africa. The economies of the world’s formerly colonized states are overseen by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, both of which are headquartered in the American capital. International diplomacy is theoretically managed by the United Nations headquartered in New York.
This is not the picture of an “ordinary country.” It is the picture of an ordinary empire. And any actual theory of power would have to take into account the dynamics inherent in the functioning of an empire — clientelism, resistance, projection and withholding of armed and monetary force, et al. How would an empire of that scale and reach even begin to transform into something new without a serious project of decolonization and demilitarization, of not just digging new trenches but active reparation and withdrawal?
Packer can’t address any of that because he can’t see the empire he operates inside of. Instead, he uses his “new theory” to fight old battles against domestic ideological foes.
Here, it is worth noting that Packer’s other signature move is to feign a rhetorical attack on the right, then swing wildly against those to his left. For instance, in 2005, Packer blamed his jingoism in Iraq on George W. Bush having borrowed “the language of the left,” supposedly selling everyone (read: him) on hewing the “liberal democratic Iraq of their dreams” (at the barrel of a helicopter gunship).
He pulled the same move domestically in 2020, when Packer and sometimes-protégé Thomas Chatterton Williams co-authored the influential Harper’s Letter. While claiming to be a defense of the “free exchange of information and ideas,” in substance the letter was a plea for well-paid public intellectuals (like them) not to lose their sinecures as a consequence of being bigoted in public. The letter’s novel framing in opposition to both “repressive government or an intolerant society” — i.e., lumping Black Lives Matter protesters with a Trump administration that was, at that moment, trying to tear-gas and crush them into submission — helped launch the “anti-woke” counter-revolution which dominates American public discourse to this day.
Packer once again deploys that tactic in his new essay, damning those to his left by accusing them of somehow being in league with the far right. First, he disingenuously links his chosen interlocutors — Moyn, Spencer Ackerman, Luke Mogelson, and Andrew Bacevich — with the Trumpian America First movement. This is, to put it mildly, a dick move. All four are adamant critics of Trump and the far right (Ackerman, who’s a friend of mine, is a committed anti-fascist; Mogelson risked his neck covering the storming of the Capitol from the center of the mob on Jan. 6). And it’s also incoherent — Trump, despite his pseudo-isolationist posturing, was (like Packer) a supporter of the Iraq War and proved a pretty good imperialist in office; escalating the tempo and toll of his wars, spiking civilian casualties everywhere. In Afghanistan, his death tolls raced upward by 330%. As Bacevich — an anti-Trump libertarian and the cofounder of the Quincy Institute — wrote in 2020, “President Trump is no more an isolationist than he is a Presbyterian.”
And, somehow, the actual grounds of Packer’s comparison are even worse on the page. He writes:
In the past few decades, an exaggerated emphasis on freedom has driven polarization in democracies, including ours: radical egalitarianism on the left, reactionary authoritarianism on the right. Both forms of illiberalism seek to forge group identities—exclusive, intolerant ones, steeped in resentment—to replace the national identities that have become corroded in an era of globalization.
Again, I’m sorry, but what? “Radical egalitarianism?” A radical belief in — equality? The main use of that phrase I can find is in the works of Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist, defined as “a form of Black liberalism that advances the idea that African-American subjugation can be eliminated by persistently challenging racial inequality within the confines of the existing American political and economic order.”
Does Packer have some other definition in mind? Whatever it is, I’d love to know how it is in any way illiberal, a parallel to authoritarianism, or “exclusive and intolerant.” It’s not much of a stretch to think that the Harper’s Letter co-author was thinking of antiracism, given how he discards his antiwar rivals’ views, describing:
A wave of recent books … [that] portrays a country so warped by endless war, white supremacy, and violence that its very nature now drives it to dominate and destroy. Ackerman concludes that it is “increasingly difficult to see America as anything more than its War on Terror.”
And that is where he, finally, totally, gets it wrong. To his credit, Packer does see that the boundaries between foreign and domestic policy are porous, that it “doesn’t seem possible for liberal democracy to remain healthy abroad but not at home, and vice versa,” and that decay of democracy “in the U.S. has coincided with the rise of authoritarianism globally.” But because he doesn’t understand what U.S. foreign policy actually is — the exercise of power and influence on a global periphery by a deeply flawed metropole — he can’t see how it works, or figure out what to do with it.
Because Packer doesn’t actually have a mode of analysis — in other words, a theory of power — he can’t see how it is the imperial wars he’s spent his life boosting overseas, and the internal hierarchies he’s now committed to preserving at home, that are powering the resurgent wave of authoritarianism. Since he can’t actually argue for the drawing down of the empire, he is left demanding empty, Wilsonian gestures during the “retrenchment,” and hoping we finally get it right in the next wars to come.
For example, the U.S. has prosecuted its piece of the Yemeni civil war by proxy since 2014. The U.S. also armed opposition forces in Syria and Sudan under Obama and Trump. Ronald Reagan famously supplied the Contras in Nicaragua and anti-communist death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — both double proxy wars against both local leftist forces and the Soviet Union — and armed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan to repel the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This strategy goes all the way back to the sub-rosa U.S. involvement in the Greek Civil War of 1946–49. In fact already it arguably already had a presidential name: the Truman Doctrine — in its aspect of “actively offering assistance to preserve the political integrity of democratic nations when such an offer was deemed to be in the best interest of the United States.”