George Packer and the Liberal Struggle to Support Imperialism

By Edward S. Herman January 2005

In his edited volume The Fight Is For Democracy (Perennial: 2003), George Packer and his liberal colleagues argued that Bush went too far with his international policies that were “a prescription for empire” (Michael Tomasky). But Packer and company did not renounce empire; instead they urged the Democrats to put the “fight for democracy” abroad as the core of their foreign policy, which would involve steady interventionism abroad, but with an allegedly noble end, and hopefully would prevent the rightwing from effectively labeling the Democrats as peaceniks and incapable of defending our “national security.

In The Fight Is For Democracy, Packer and Tomasky argued that the Democrats were a proper vehicle for the democracy crusade, although history, the structural imperatives that it reflects, and the constant systemic pressure on the Democrats to display their devotion to our “national security” by forceful actions, make it quite clear that the Democrats’ fight for democracy abroad would continue to be wonderfully selective, ignoring “our kind of guy” like Suharto and helping overthrow a social democrat like Joao Goulart in Brazil (Democrats Clinton and Johnson, respectively, operating in accord with corporate priorities, with Johnson actually proclaiming the overthrow of democracy and installation of a military dictatorship a triumph of freedom). The Packer-Tomasky defense of the Democrats was based on a laughable misreading of history (as I discussed earlier in “Liberals in Search of a Foreign Policy,”
Z Magazine:

Another key feature of the Packer-Tomasky support of interventionism was its complete lack of any serious political-economic analysis. Could U.S. foreign policy be explained by the demands of the growing transnational corporate sector and the military-industrial complex that grew up side-by-side with TNC outreach and possibly adds its own interventionary interests to the package? Could these power interests feed in to the electoral process and media and through these routes dominate the behavior of the political parties and elected officials in defining the “national interest”? These elemental questions don’t arise for Packer and company, leaving the Republican and Democratic parties and leaders disembodied and free to choose their paths, which is utter nonsense, but useful in systems of liberal apologetics that are not prepared to oppose a consensus supportive of imperialism.

An amusing feature of Packer’s Introduction to The Fight Is For Democracy is that he acknowledges that the growth in corporate power and inequality has caused “money and its influence [to] claim a greater share of political power,” with the result that “democracy has atrophied” in this country. But he does not allow this to interfere with the notion that the Democrats are a potential vehicle for spreading democracy abroad; he does not admit that an atrophied democracy more than ever influenced by corporate power might not be a great vehicle for spreading democracy, although its principals might be happy to see it used as a cover. Nor does he suggest that maybe the liberals ought to be working full-time to get a working democracy here before pushing for spreading it elsewhere. This can only be explained by his taking of imperialism as a given and something that must be supported, along with his limited objective of helping the Democrats regain control of office and the imperialist process.

George Packer has updated his thoughts on Republicans versus Democrats as vehicles for spreading democracy (“Invasion Vs Persuasion,” The New Yorker, December 20/27, 2004:, but he has no doubts that spreading democracy is what this country is up to: “The hard question isn’t whether America should try to enlarge the democratic order but how”. This is straightforward imperialist ideology, which explains the outward thrust of the United States not as the projection of power by a country with global economic interests, but done in a spirit of benevolence. However, certain problems arise: one is the historical record extending over many years of support of political gangsters, many of whom ousted democratic governments—a key set is the eleven cases of displacement of democratic governments by dictatorships in Latin America in the Kennedy-Johnson years, but there are many others. Furthermore, this support continues today, with Uzbekistan’s Karimov and Pakistan’s Musharraf notable illustrations.

There is also documentation from the official record of a primary concern over open door and investment climate policies and minimal concern over “democracy” (see Chomsky’s On Power and Ideology [South End: 1987], chap. 1, and my “The United States Versus Human Rights in the Third World,” Harvard Human Rights Journal, Spring 1991). And there is solid data showing an inverse relationship between U.S. economic and military aid and human rights, including maintenance of a democratic political structure (see Herman, The Real Terror Network [South End: 1982], chap. 3). The long U.S. aid and training of Latin American (and other) military in the School of the Americas was explicitly designed to provide a counterweight to populism, and these trainees led the transformation of Latin America into a virtual system of National Security States from 1954 through the 1980s, regularly displacing democratic governments, with U.S. support.

There is also the problem that the Bush administration’s leaders put up a series of policy statements between 1992 and 2002 that called for a more aggressive projection of power, with minimal reference to democratization and maximum attention to the desire for an enhanced power presence in the Middle East and elsewhere, and alleged “national security” concerns.

All of the above considerations are consistent with the hypothesis that now, as in the past, the United States will support democracy when this will serve the higher objectives, which include the willingness to provide a favorable climate of investment, to accept neoliberalism as basic policy and ideology, and to become a de facto dependency of the United States and West. George Packer does not discuss this hypothesis, which would suggest that spreading democracy is not a real objective but can be the instrument of a well-managed imperialism, serving as a cover for more mundane ends.

One of the most remarkable features of Packer’s new look is that he has transformed George Bush into a conscious agent for the spread of democracy. Packer had already offered apologetics for the invasion-occupation, arguing that since it had happened it was important for it to be successful. “You can object to no bid contracts, you can object to cronyism and waste as I do, without undermining the basic understanding that we are committed to this and we have an enormous obligation to the Iraqis” (quoted by Michelle Goldberg, “Dazed and Confused About Iraq,” Salon, Oct. 27, 2003). Notice the “we,” with Packer identifying with the Bush administration and making that “our” and “his” commitment, in the “Good German” and ”willing executioner” tradition. A non-imperialist might argue that when an aggression built on lies takes place, the first order of business is exit, the second is punishment for the “supreme crime,” plus ongoing serious lesser crimes that Packer can’t acknowledge. For him we can’t forfeit our alleged obligations even in face of Abu Ghraib, ruthless pacification, and the fact that the ugly U.S. presence has produced a massive insurgency and that the Iraqis seem anxious to get rid of us. The idea that our “obligation” to the Iraqis might be quick exit, prosecutions for U.S. war crimes, and massive reparations is outside Packer’s orbit of thought.

There is also the problem that the Bush team clearly had other objectives than democratization and planned from the beginning to neo-liberalize Iraq without the consent of the people, and establish a client state that would sanction U.S. bases and privileged access to Iraqi oil. Packer now asserts that “No one should doubt that he and his surviving senior advisers believes in what they call the ‘forward strategy of freedom,’ even if they’ve had to talk themselves into it…By now…it is clear that, however, clumsy and selective the execution, Bush wants democratization to be his legacy.” Packer tells us that no one should “misjudge his sincerity,” and that arguing that it is a cover for an “American power grab…is not a good position for the opposition to be in, either morally or politically. The best role for critics in the president’s second term will be not to scoff at the idea of spreading freedom but to take it seriously—to hold him to his own talk.”

Packer of course gives not the slightest evidence for this claim of a new devotion to democratization beyond the Bush words, and he does not claim to have invented a sinceriometer—this is a liberal trimmer’s pure but exceedingly crude and silly rationalization of the ongoing imperial operation. Now that Bush has four more years, as Packer is spiritually unable to move into the anti-imperialist (and anti-aggression and pro-international law) camp, he must make “our mission” benevolent, and our job making Bush stick to his objectives, although why we have to bother holding him to his own talk if he is really and sincerely now seeking democracy is unclear.

Packer’s claim that arguing that the Bushies are engaged in a “power grab” is “morally” as well as politically unacceptable implies that even if it is true that the Bushies are so engaged we cannot press that claim. Presumably in this case it is moral to lie and pretend that the Bush mission is benevolent even if internal documents and his actual performance tell us otherwise. We should remain silent and press Our Leader to pursue a forward strategy of freedom because morality is always on our side, by patriotic assumption.

A further difficulty with Packer’s notion of a new Bush aiming for a democracy legacy is that Bush has been busy undermining democracy and the rule of law in the United States itself. Perhaps he has become so devoted to and preoccupied with bringing democracy abroad that his own country slipped out of his consciousness and some of his underlings not yet geared in to the new Bush legacy aim have been doing this damage. Or perhaps Packer found this deviationism too inconvenient for integration into his “analysis” of the new and sincere devotion to democracy elsewhere!

In his recent New Yorker piece Packer puts great emphasis on the difference between good , multilateral interventionism in favor of democracy, as exemplified by the recent “pro-democracy” campaign in the Ukraine, and the bungling unilateral effort by Bush and company in Iraq. For Packer the interventions in the Ukraine (and in Yugoslavia and Georgia) helped produce “peaceful democratic revolutions,” and in the Ukraine “the meddlers have done nothing worse than help guarantee a people’s right to choose a government freely.” This is a gross error of fact: massive intervention with resources, training programs, organizational efforts, and propaganda, combined with subtle and unsubtle pressures from the outside on the regime targeted for change, will distort an electoral process (as happened earlier in Nicaragua in the process of ouster of the Sandinistas in 1990). Also, in Yugoslavia,” as in Nicaragua, the “peaceful democratic revolution” was one facet of a policy of regime change in which economic warfare and military attack were essential features.

Packer ignores the fact that “pro-democracy” in the three cases he mentions was also “pro-neoliberalism,” so that these campaigns are somehow managing to achieve the economic policy ends sought by U.S. interventionism that brought military dictators into power in Latin America. With the help of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and trade, financial and military base agreements, this can now be done via “democratic revolutions,” whose only problem is that they yield very constrained democracies that lack much independence. Packer, who mentions the atrophying of democracy in the United States (in his book) has not a word to say about the possible limits to democracy in these new “democracies” helped into being by foreign atrophied democracies.

Packer also ignores the geopolitical aspect of these supposed “pro-democracy” movements, which in the Ukraine will have the affect of pulling a close and important neighbor of Russia out of Russia’s sphere of influence into that of the United States and NATO. (The strategy of removing Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit as a means of weakening Russia was a major theme of Brezezinski’s 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives.) In fact, Packer sneers at The Nation for making the obvious point that the United States “refuses to abandon its Cold War policy of encircling Russia and seeking to pull every former Soviet Republic into its orbit.” Packer comments that the magazine is “taking the Russian side of the Cold War.” So, it is a continuation of the Cold War, and Packer implicitly supports “his side,” but doesn’t even think this is worth mentioning as a feature of the “pro-democracy” policy. Only a journal lacking adequate patriotic ardor and bias would bring this up! This is crude apologetics, and in this apologetic for the real rescuscitation of Cold War aggressiveness covered over by “pro-democracy” interventionism, Packer displays another violation of morality—namely, he writes apologetics for actions that, if carried out by a hostile power against the United States, such as Russia pumping resources into Mexico to assist people there to resist U.S. penetration, he would find highly objectionable. He has the built-in double standard that is characteristic of nationalists and imperialists everywhere. We are special and rules applicable to others are not applicable to us. (This is one reason Packer has not been outraged by the U.S. violation of the UN Charter in each of its recent wars.)

With Packer adjusting well to Bush era imperialism—Bush has bungled, but is now, with Godly sanction, intent on democratizing [abroad!], though needing an occasional push--and with Democratic Senators like Joe Biden and Charles Schumer expressing warmth toward the nomination of anti-rule-of-law and torture apologist Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General, anti-imperialists and democrats (with a small d) have a tough job ahead.

Published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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