A Letter From Paul Berman

A LETTER FROM PAUL BERMAN….In his book The Assassins’ Gate, George Packer wrote:

Before leaving for Iraq, I’d had dinner at the usual Brooklyn bistro with Paul Berman. He kept comparing the situation in post-totalitarian Baghdad to Prague in 1989. I kept insisting that Iraq was vastly different: under military occupation, far more violent, its people more traumatized, living in a much worse neighborhood.

I thought this was nuts and said so in a blog post. Well, it turns out that Paul Berman thinks it’s nuts too, and today he writes to say that he never said it.


Last December you ran a short item that mentioned me, and, in retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t respond. Your purpose was to argue that, back in the early days of 2003 and the start of the Iraq war, liberal interventionists were in the grip of fantastical delusions, and, to illustrate this contention, you quoted a paragraph from George Packer’s book The Assassins’ Gate. The paragraph recounts a barroom chat between George and me in Brooklyn from those long-ago times, in which I am said to have likened Baghdad in the period after the 2003 invasion to Prague in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution. You took note of this passage in your blog and you pasted the word “insane” over it in order to show that liberal interventionists were out of their minds. And you went on to observe that, if historical analogies between Iraq and some other place needed to be made, many another choice would have seemed much more plausible. Kosovo, for instance ? among other examples that you cited. But Prague during the Velvet Revolution? No.

Now, when you ran this post, I should have written to you right away to explain that never in a million years, not even in a noisy bar at two in the morning, have I imagined that Baghdad in 2003 resembled Prague in 1989.

The anti-totalitarian revolution that took place in Prague in 1989 was altogether peaceful. And more than peaceful ? the revolution came very close to being legal, too, given that, in the face of popular demonstrations, the Communist leaders basically decided, after a while, to shrug their shoulders in melancholy resignation and hand over power in a fairly orderly and parliamentary fashion to V?clav Havel and his fellow liberals. I know a lot about these events because I spent a month in Prague as a reporter during those very thrilling times, and I wrote voluminously about what I saw.

It was not within my capacity, back in 2003, to have mistaken Baghdad’s reality for Prague’s ? to have mistaken a violent military invasion for a peaceful transition of power, or to have regarded the Baath Party’s terrorist resistance as roughly equivalent to the Communist Party’s resignation in Prague. A similarity between the super-oppressed Third World in the grip of war and the heart of Europe practising mass non-violence? “Insane,” you wrote. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Nonetheless, George did claim in his book that, at the bar in Brooklyn, I made precisely that very insane comparison. George is a wonderful writer and a terrific journalist, not to mention a brave and intrepid one. The Assassins’ Gate seems to me, apart from a few passages, truly a superb book. But George is also a novelist, and I can only say that the person who composed that paragraph about me and Prague and the bar was George Packer the novelist. Those particular lines in The Assassins’ Gate are fiction. The paragraph contributes to the magniicent color and drama of his book. But he has invented that conversation.

I didn’t respond to your post back in December because, well, many silly things are said in public, and life is short, and some disputes are too picayune to pursue. I hoped that George’s remark about me and Prague would simply go away. Maybe I hoped (excuse me for this) that no one was reading your blog. Big mistake! The story about me having made a preposterous comparison between Baghdad and Prague circulated, and has gone on doing so, until the Los Angeles Times got hold of it a few weeks ago and ran an op-ed saying that I had compared Baghdad to the Prague Spring of 1968 ? which shows how, over time, rumors grow ever more ridiculous.

I am glumly aware that I will never be able to prove that George has invented this story. There was liquor at that bar, but there was no tape recorder, unless the agents of Homeland Security turn out to have been bugging the place. I will never be able to prove absolutely that what I am said to have said is something I could not possibly have said. George himself has made clear that he is going to go to his final hour swearing to the peerless accuracy of his barroom recollections.

Still, I would like to point out that George’s account and your own recycling of it make a hash of the actual position on Iraq that I and all kinds of people with instincts like mine did try to uphold, a few years ago. When you suggest that Kosovo (among your other examples) might have offered a better analogy for Iraq, I can only say, exactly!

The liberal interventionist position on Iraq, in my version of it, always argued in favor of approaching Iraq partly as an extension of the Balkans policy of the late 1990s. That was one of the points of my book Terror and Liberalism, before the Iraq war had even begun ? one of my bases for criticizing Bush, whose policy on Iraq showed no concern at all for the Kosovo precedent.

An extended and more precise comparison of Iraq and Kosovo occupies a big portion of my current book Power and the Idealists ? in order to demonstrate what an alternative liberal policy for Iraq might have been, and to shed some additional light on Bush’s thousand blunders, as viewed by the veterans of the Kosovo intervention. You don’t have to agree with my emphasis on the Kosovo analogy or accept my argument for an alternative liberal interventionist policy ? I know that your own position departs from mine. But, for better or for worse, the argument about Iraq that I and other liberals and people on the left proposed in the past did have something to do with Kosovo ? and had nothing to do with mistaking Baghdad for Prague.

It’s true that, back in 2003, some people did expect Iraq to blossom easily and automatically into an Eastern European-type democracy, 1989-style, and these people arrived at their sunny expectations mostly out of a naive belief that iron laws of universal history, as revealed in the revolutions of 1989, were unalterably at work. I have made the case any number of times that Bush’s fecklessness in Iraq owes quite a bit to this all-too-simple assumption.

Then again, Bush and his supporters were hardly the only ones to entertain the 1989 analogy in its simple, sunny version. Saddam’s statue was torn down on April 9, 2003, in Baghdad, and, in the American press, the notion that Iraq was undergoing a 1989-like success became, ever so briefly, a popular cliche ? an irresistible one, really, because of the visual image of the falling statue. I myself was thrilled to see the statue come down, and to see Saddam’s government collapse ? as everybody ought to have been.

Yet even then, or, better put, especially then, when hopes for Iraq were at their zenith, I warned precisely against any temptation to assume that Iraqis were now going to progress toward democratic liberty in the way that so many Eastern Europeans had done. Suzy Hansen of Salon interviewed me on that occasion, and I put a lot of emphasis on that particular warning.

“They’re in much worse shape,” I said about the Iraqis. I gave reasons for this ? why Iraq’s situation was graver than Eastern Europe’s, and graver than Germany’s after the Nazis. I said, “It will be a long while before they can conduct normal business without killing each other.” This was not a stupid remark. Nothing in this worried comment suggested that Baghdad in 2003 resembled Prague in 1989. These remarks ran in Salon on April 10, 2003 ? the moment of maximum optimism for the Iraqi future. The interview is still online.

I published a think-piece in the Boston Globe three days later, once again emphasizing Iraq’s several disadvantages, relative to Eastern Europe in 1989 ? and this, too, is still online. I worried in the Globe that Bush was likely to make too small an effort in Iraq, and was likely to behave with hubris ? a formula for disaster. I reminded the readers that communism’s collapse in Europe led to successes in many places, but also to the Balkan genocide ? which suggested that Baathism’s defeat in Iraq might easily lead to similar calamities, if the United States and its allies failed to act responsibly. I worried about the danger in having too few American soldiers in Iraq. In those days I was shouting to everyone who would listen about the delusions that I was noticing all around me, not in Iraq but in the United States and especially in its government.

I cite my Salon interview and my piece in the Globe, together with my books, in order to show that George’s tale about me and the bar ? this story which your blog helped popularize ? runs against a main thrust of my thinking, and not just during the early months of 2003, when George claims that I made the ridiculous comparison. I have been mulling over the right and wrong conclusions to draw from 1989 for many years now ? ever since my book A Tale of Two Utopias, back in 1996, the same book, by the way, that describes in some detail a few aspects of the Velvet Revolution.

But I know, I know ? once these legends about insane barroom commentaries have begun to spread, there’s no way to prevent them from continuing to do so. I’m halfway convinced that someday the LA Times or some other equally reputable publication will run an item declaring that, at a Brooklyn bar long ago, I compared Baghdad terrorism to hippie communes on the planet Venus. But, at least ? and I thank you for this opportunity ? I can in the future invite anyone who believes such a story to look up this letter of mine in your blog today, with its references to the online archives of what I actually did say about Iraq, back in the early months of 2003 and thereabouts ? not in a bar as recollected less than amiably by George Packer two years after the fact, but under my own byline, or else in formal interviews that, I am glad to say, did make use of that most unnovelistic of devices, that fiercest enemy of the free imagination, a journalist’s tape recorder.

Final observation, if you will allow me. Liberal interventionism is a position much under criticism these days, sometimes by people who always did oppose it, sometimes by penitents who, in the past, used to uphold the position but now feel they made a big mistake. Well, everybody is welcome to criticize, and to repent, and to accuse. But the argument should be described as it was, with its nuances and complexities. Precision is everything.