Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade

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

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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.   

“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.)”

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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.

A more serious issue is the author’s occasional naiveté. At times, Packer doesn’t seem to grasp the extent of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. (This is especially puzzling given his excellent essay “Betrayed” – which he adapted into a play – on the plight of Iraqis who cooperated with the United States.) When he suggests that the US government fund reform-minded Middle Eastern groups in a bid to replicate a successful strategy in Serbia, he does not explain how to counter widespread and inflammatory conspiracy theories regarding American intentions and the violence these theories engender.

Packer is also a bit too taken with the notion of reforming Islam. Like Daniel Pipes, a writer on Middle East politics and history at the other end of the ideological spectrum, the liberal Packer evinces a deep respect for Sudanese Islamic reformer Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, executed for sedition and apostasy by the Sudanese regime in 1985. Taha was a fascinating figure, but Western intellectuals’ obsession with Islamic religious reform betrays a distressing lack of faith in the prospects of secularization in the Islamic world, and ignores or even subverts the efforts of secular reformers.

Because Taha considered personal freedoms and rights to derive from the Koran, implementing his ideas – while admittedly empowering women and non-Muslims – would further consecrate Islam as the source of human rights legislation.

Whereas the future may reveal whether or not Packer’s leanings – including his more controversial ones – are sound, for now the emphasis must remain on his journalism. The essays in “Interesting Times,” though uneven in terms of length as well as depth, include several outstanding pieces on Iraq, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Burma.

And without making any predictions, Packer points to a possible phenomenon-in-the-making that the world should watch. Although he concedes that “Obama’s movement didn’t exist before his candidacy,” Packer observes that “it has the breadth, the organization, and the generational energy of other movements, and it can be converted into a political coalition if its leader knows how to harness it.”

Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance  reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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