George Packer has made civic dysfunction a specialty of his journalism. He is a master of explaining things that don't work, ideas that don't make sense, and the people who cling to them anyway.
So when, in the course of a conversation about his new collection of essays, he says his next book will focus on "America's decline" it gets your attention. Decline? Really?
"Does anyone think it isn't?" he asks.
It's hard to argue with someone who has Packer's analytical skills. This is an award-winning journalist, after all, who covered the disastrous mismanagement of the early years of the Iraq war, who witnessed the refusal of Myanmar's military leaders to save thousands of people from starving after a typhoon inundated the country, who documented in wincing detail the petty gamesmanship and obstructionism of the U.S. Senate ("the world's greatest deliberative body") as it voted on health care legislation.
Clearly, he knows a failing institution when he sees one.
But Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, isn't entirely fatalistic. His mind doesn't tend that way.
His new collection, Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade, attests to that. Even when he is confronting the intractable problem — the occupation of Iraq, for example — Packer always seeks the person who may have the solution. He's not interested in an armchair commentator in a cable news studio, but someone unheralded who has earned expertise on the ground.
"I try to resist the easy, known formulation — Iraqis will be grateful for liberation, or Africans don't mind being poor," he said by phone recently. "If I see it, I get suspicious."
"I'm always surprised and I'm always happy to be surprised," he says. "I like my thinking to be disturbed and remade in complicated ways."
Few stories disturbed his thinking as much as the Iraq war, a conflict that, he writes in the introduction, "I supported, for reasons that had more to do with strong emotions than global strategy."
As he continued to return to Iraq, his ideas about "grand ideological struggles and comparisons with the Cold War began to sound a little too glib," he writes.
What he found on the ground was a military and an administration that refused to acknowledge the evidence of a growing insurgency and therefore was incapable of mounting the proper strategy to counter it.
In three pieces, "The Lesson of Tal Afar," "Knowing the Enemy" and "Betrayed," all of which appeared in the New Yorker in the critical years of 2006 and 2007, Packer displays the irreplaceable value of seeking good information and the tragic costs of refusing to.
"When we came to Iraq, we didn't understand the complexity — what it meant for a society to live under a brutal dictatorship, with ethnic and sectarian divisions," says U.S. Army Col. H.R. MacMaster, the officer whose ability to get smart on the battlefield is credited with prying the city of Tal Afar from insurgents. "You can't come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people."
That humility is Packer's default posture. It has the paradoxical effect of infusing the pieces with authority and also compassion. It is impossible not to share Packer's quiet outrage at American officials who, in the middle of the exploding civil war, refused to safeguard the Iraqi translators who had put their lives in jeopardy to bring their Green Zone-ensconced employers useful information they often ignored.
"The problem lay not with the individuals but with the institution, and beyond that, with the politics of the American project in Iraq," he writes about the embassy officials. "To admit that the Iraqis who work with Americans need to be evacuated would blow a hole in the administration's version of the war."
Packer, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa in the early '80s, has always had an expansive view of the world, and the datelines scattered through the collection reflect that — Lagos, Freetown, Kampala, Rangoon. But he has focused much of his work in the two years since the 2008 election, which is the final chapter of Interesting Times, on stories at home.
In November 2008, there is evident optimism in Packer's tone when he writes after Obama's victory, "For the first time since the Johnson administration, the idea that government should take bold action to create equal opportunity for all citizens doesn't have to explain itself in a defensive mumble."
Two years later, in the midst of ferocious backlash against just such "bold action," Packer is not quite so sanguine. "Let me put it this way," he says. "The 2008 election was not in itself a turning point, but it did offer a chance of renewal."
The economy has gotten only worse, despite White House predictions. Wealth has pooled in dangerously high concentrations in a tiny fraction of the population, he says, as incomes for the middle class have flattened or declined.
"This recession simply left people worse off," he says. That's why "money and (financial) security, how we divide the pie, what our obligations are to others," is the central issue of our time, not the culture war debates — gay marriage, abortion and immigration — that suck so much of our attention.
"We seem incapable of having a reasonable argument about how to solve our problems," he says.
True to form, when faced with the seemingly insoluble problem, he is spending his time these days searching for the people who "are aware of the decline and have different ideas about our renewal."
Bill Duryea is the Times' national editor.