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Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade

Award-winning journalist George Packer grapples with the global consequences of political idealism.

By Rayyan al-Shawaf / November 23, 2009

George Packer, author of the award-winning “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq,” continues to be one of the most important and authoritative voices on Iraq as well as Islamic extremism, thanks to a piercing intellect and a commendable willingness to confront and even modify his earlier beliefs. Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade brings together several previously published essays (most of which appeared in The New Yorker), written during or just after a distinct era, beginning with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and ending on Nov. 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.   

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“To some degree,” Packer writes, “almost every essay in this collection deals with the problem of idealism.” Indeed, whether the subject is then-Sen. Joseph Biden’s attempt to secure funding for schools in Afghanistan, Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya’s effort to craft the perfect blueprint for democracy in Iraq, New York prosthetist Matthew Mirones’s project to outfit amputated Sierra Leonean children with artificial limbs, or Hnin Se’s mission to educate fellow Burmese about their rights, Packer grapples with the complications of trying to help others. More often than not, these attempts end in partial or complete failure, but Packer cautions against allowing this disheartening reality to lead to apathy and isolationism.

Packer can be rather shrill when chastising conservatives for their myriad political failures, but he is no narrow-minded partisan. One of this book’s most trenchant criticisms is leveled at liberals whose opposition to the Iraq war resulted in a smug and self-satisfied cynicism. “The administration’s deceptions, exaggerations, and always-evolving rationales provoked a counternarrative,” Packer points out, “that mirrored the White House version of the war in its simplemindedness: the war was about nothing (except greed, empire, and blind folly.)”

Because these essays originally appeared separately, thrusting them together creates some stylistic awkwardness. The concluding section of  “Interesting Times” boasts a couple of intriguing articles on US politics, but suffers from repetition. Even the book’s opening section, whose chapters insightfully dissect the war in Iraq, features two essays that end with the same excerpt from an interview with an Iraqi interpreter.


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