Bill Keller, the top editor at the New York Times since July 2003, has penned a lengthy piece for this Sunday’s Times Magazine, which was launched online today, as if the world could not wait another day for it. This coincides with the end of Keller’s tenure at the top, with longtime #2 Jill Abramson taking over, and his slide over to the job of opinion columnist. He uses this timing to explain why, after more than eight years, he is finally writing about that infamous period when (just before he became editor) he served as a leading “liberal hawk” backing the invasion of Iraq. Keller claims he couldn’t do this before, as editor, but is free to do so now, as just another pundit.
There is so much wrong with this explanation, and so much else in his piece, that one doesn’t know where to start. In sum, it amounts to another “mini culpa” from Keller. That’s the phrase coined by Jack Shafer, then at Slate, describing Keller’s half-hearted editor’s note (neither correction or apology) on his paper’s error-ridden coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. More on that later.
Here are some initial thoughts:
§ Keller sets the wrong contextual tone right from the start, adopting as his headline “My Unfinished 9/11 Business.” Then he stoops to citing the birth of his daughter shortly after 9/11 as a motivator for his hawkishness, because now. "Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism."
§ So, like George Bush, he turned his "attention to Iraq, a place that had, in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11, but which would be its most contentious consequence." Note the qualfier "almost" noting to do with 9/11. What, exactly, did it have to do with 9/11 in the "literal sense"?
§ As noted, Keller claims early on that he couldn’t write about his support for the war after he became editor. “I was obliged to keep my opinions to myself lest they be mistaken for the newspaper’s agenda or influence our coverage.” He admits he is “the last of the club to retrace my steps.” First, that excuse is invalid. There was nothing, besides lack of of guts and fear of mockery, to keep him, years later, from revisiting his support for the war back in 2003.
Second, contrary to what he claims this week, he has retraced his steps at length before, as long ago as June 14, 2003, in a Times piece titled “The Boys Who Cried Wolfowitz.” Here he defended/explained his hawkishness on invading Iraq in several ways including: “I supported it mainly because of the convergence of a real threat and a real opportunity.” Saddam’s “brazen defiance made us seem weak and vulnerable, an impression we can ill afford. The opportunity was a moment of awareness and political will created by Sept. 11…” As for the missing WMD, well, they might still show up, and: “Even if you throw out all the tainted evidence, there was still what prosecutors call probable cause to believe that Saddam was harboring frightful weapons, and was bent on acquiring the most frightful weapons of all.” Much of the intel gathering community does seem “corrupted” but this hardly “invalidates the war we won.”