George Packer: 'US Military Strikes a Lost Cause'

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Syria's insurgents aren't the only ones who think the prospect of a US intervention is now very remote at best. George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, is calling US military strikes essentially a lost cause. Packer is the author of "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq" and more recently "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." We asked him if he's hearing echoes of Iraq in the most recent debates on intervention in Syria.

George Packer: My first thought was the old quote from Marx, "The first time is tragedy and the second time is farce." And this is a litle bit farcical except that there are so many people dead in Syria. But in Washington it seems a bit farcical. There's a lot of dots to connect, and I think the most important one is that the American public and Congress simply have no stomach for even the "unbelievably small," to quote Secretary Kerry's phrase, military action that the administration is proposing. They've just been hit in the face with overwhelming rejection, as Prime Minister Cameron was, and that is a direct result of what's happened in the twelve years since September 11, 2001.

Werman: No stomach for it, and do you think perhaps also that the United States is just kind of fatigued with "all that stuff that's going on outside our borders"?

Packer: The Middle East just looks like a flaming swamp right now. And Americans see that and think, this is not our problem, this is far away, this is unbelievably complicated and it's just intractable and unresolvable and nothing we do, and certainly nothing in the form of tomahawk missiles, is going to sort it out, so why should we get pulled in again? I think Iraq especially and Afghanistan as well was such an incredibly searing experience and that's a direct line to the terrible trouble President Obama is having in getting Americans to think chemical weapons is something else, this is something that we can't tolerate. Instead Americans are saying, we have to tolerate it because we just can't get involved. It always turns out badly for us when we wade into these overseas conflicts that we don't understand.

Werman: And what about you, George? You were a supporter of the Iraq War back in 2002-2003. Fair to say?

Packer: I was ambivalent, but I think on the day of the invasion I wanted Saddam out more than I wanted the US out, yeah.

Werman: So what's your thinking now about a military strike in Syria? Do you come back to any of the same arguments?

Packer: I think that the principle of an international norm over chemical weapons is pretty powerful. And in this case what we have is clear evidence, which we did not have in 2002-2003. But the problem I see, and the reason why I haven't been able to say yes, do it, fullheartedly, is because I don't know what happens after. There's no plan for the day after the last day of the bombing. It seems that we make a statement and who knows how effective that statement will be. If it's as small and as tailored and as telegraphed in such a tortured way as this one would be, and the day after the killing goes on, I would prefer that the Obama administration, if they're going to say let's get involved in the Syrian civil war, which this would mean we would be involved, that they then had a strategy for how to end that war. And so in a sense it's a statement that seems to have more to do with our feeling that we've done something, than with the actual results in Syria.

Werman: Yeah, it does kind of feel like "got to do something" has become a mantra of late. You know, when I think of that moment when George W. Bush climbed atop the ruins of the World Trade Center three days after 9/11 and announced, the people who knocked these buildings down will hear us real soon, and indeed, in Afghanistan they did, and in Iraq, an extension of that, later, that's something of a real contrast with the cautious steps the Obama administration is making on attacking Syria and the tone he took last night. What does all this tell us about the role of America in the world today and how that's changed over the last ten years?

Packer: Well, I think Obama is the right president for this moment in the sense that Americans and their representatives don't want grand statements backed up by blind acts involving military force. And Obama is an extremely careful and nuanced thinker, and perhaps too nuanced for a moment that calls for something closer to clarity and consistency and resolve. When you're committing the armed force of the United States to military action, you can't be thinking out loud and airing all the complexities of it because it undermines people's confidence in you. George Bush was a simplistic and simplifying man, who at that moment after 9/11 told Americans what they needed to hear and wanted to hear at that moment, and they rewarded him with reelection in the middle of a losing war. So in a sense we have the president for the moment now and we had the president for the moment then. And I'm not saying that's a good thing. I'm not saying they reflect a positive course of action, but they're sort of what the American people have willed into being at those two distinct moments separated by 12 years.

Werman: You've written that you think the chances of missile strikes on Syria are now less than one in ten. Why do you think that?

Packer: Because I think Obama has been handed exactly what he needed, which is a way not to have to take an unwilling country, an unwilling Congress into a war. Once he declared that he would go to Congress, and once Congressmen start hearing from their constituents, it was a terrible trap he had set for himself. What was he going to do if they voted no, which seemed likely? Was he going to go ahead and do it anyway? That would be pretty perilous politically. And this gives him a way out, and that's what he wanted. So the speech last night probably shouldn't have been given at all. They should have gone about the business that they want to do now which is to negotiate in Geneva with the Russians so that everyone can save face and get out of this without any more disaster. But that leaves cold comfort for the Syrians. The idea of international control over Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, which is improbable, is also beside the point for most Syrians who are caught up in the country's war.

Werman: George Packer, staff writer for the New Yorker. He's the author of "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." George, great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Packer: My pleasure.