UPDATE The piece below was written, in only slightly different from, on assignment for The Washington Post but killed by the paper's Outlook section on Thursday. They later ran a piece by their own Paul Farhi claiming that the media "didn't fail" on Iraq. When I wrote about this today it drew wide attention across the Web. Follow that all here.
For awhile, back in 2003, Iraq meant never having to say you’re sorry, at least for the many war hawks. The spring offensive had produced a victory in less than three weeks, with a relatively low American and Iraqi civilian death toll. Saddam fled and George W. Bush and his team drew overwhelming praise, at least here at home.
But wait. Where were the crowds greeting us as “liberators”? Why were the Iraqis now shooting at each other—and blowing up our soldiers? And where were those WMD, biochem labs, and nuclear materials? Most Americans still backed the invasion, so it still too early for mea culpas—it was more “my sad” than “my bad.”
By 2004 it was clear that Saddam’s WMD would never be found, but with another election season at hand, sorry was still the hardest word. But a few very limited glimmers of accountability began to appear. So let’s begin our catalog of the art of mea culpa and Iraq here. Much more in my new ebook, So Wrong for So Long.
PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY President Bush and many others—including scores of Democrats—who once claimed “slam dunk” evidence on Iraq’s WMD now admitted that this intelligence was more below-average than Mensa. But don’t blame them! They simply had been misled. Judith Miller of The New York Times, perhaps the prime fabulist in the run-up to war, explained that she was only as good as her sources—her sources having names like “Curveball” and “Red Cap Guy.”
But the news media, which for the most part had swallowed whole the WMD claims, was not facing re-election, so some self-criticism, at least of the “mistakes-were-made” variety came easier.
THE MINI-CULPA This phrase was coined by Jack Shafer of Slate after The New York Times published an “editors’ note” in May 2004, admitting it had publishing a few “problematic articles” (it didn’t mention any authors) on Iraqi WMD, but pointing out it was “taken in” like most in the Bush administration.
Unlike the Times, Washington Post editors three months later did not produce their own explanation but allowed chief media reporter Howard Kurtz to write a lengthy critique. Editors and reporters admitted they had often performed poorly but offered one excuse after another. With phrases such as “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” One top reporter said, “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. “ Topping them all, Kurtz reported that Bob Woodward “said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.”
STONEWALLING As years passed, the carnage in Iraq intensified but accepting blame for this in America was still pretty much AWOL. President Bush and Vice President Cheney said that even if the WMD threat was bogus, they’d still do it again. Reason: They’d deposed a “dictator”—and would you rather have Saddam still in power?
A THOUSAND MEA CULPAS Bob Simon of CBS on doubts about the WMD: “No, in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas, I don’t think we followed up on this….I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light—if that doesn’t seem ridiculous.”
Now let’s flash forward to this past two weeks, when Iraq (remember Iraq?) re-emerged in the news and opinion sections. But anyone who expected that hair shirts would come into fashion must have been sadly disappointed. The mea culpas would not be maxima. First, those who accepted some blame.
LIMITED HANGOUT STRATEGY David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, wrote well over a thousand words at The Daily Beast describing multiple reasons for promoting the war before very briefly concluding, “Those of us who were involved—in whatever way—bear the responsibility.” While adding: “I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me.”
Jonathan Chait at New York offered regrets for backing the war but defended believing in Saddam’s WMD and recalled that “supporting the war was cool and a sign of seriousness.” And: “The people demanding apologies today will find themselves being asked to supply apologies of their own tomorrow.”
YOUNG AND DUMBER Ezra Klein apologized in a Bloomberg column, at great length, for supporting the war—when he was eighteen, and “young and dumb.” Charles P. Pierce at Esquire replied, “It is encouraging that he no longer believes in fairy tales.”
MEA (AND A LOT OF OTHERS) CULPA Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, wrote at Foreign Policy: “It never occurred to me or anyone else I was working with, and no one from the intelligence community or anyplace else ever came in and said, ‘What if Saddam is doing all this deception because he actually got rid of the WMD and he doesn’t want the Iranians to know?’ Now, somebody should have asked that question. I should have asked that question. Nobody did.”
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK Thomas Friedman, famous author and columnist, admitted that the US had “paid too high a price” for the 2003 invasion (which he supported, but did not now mention) but, hey, there was still a decent chance that good would come for it—if only those ungrateful Iraqis would stop blowing each other up and form a stable democracy. David Ignatius at The Washington Post offered his regrets but observed that at least “the surge” worked and saved lives (although Rajiv Chandraskaran at the Post called this a “myth”).
Now for those who accepted little or no blame:
WHO, MEA? Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy Pentagon chief, in an interview fiercely denied he was the architect of the disaster. Aferall, “I didn’t meet with him [Bush] very often.” The New York Times in an editorial pointed fingers at the bad actors who helped get us into the war but somehow did not recognize any “me” in “mess.” (The Washington Post got around this by not publishing an editorial on the subject at all.) Peter Beinart at The Daily Beast blamed the war on American “hubris” but did not reveal that he (hubristically?) backed the war himself.
THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT Dick Cheney in a new Showtime documentary said he’d do it all again. “I feel very good about it. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair concurred. Donald Rumsfeld tweeted (yes) about “liberating” 25 million Iraqis. He failed to recall when he said the war would last at most six months.
Richard Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, said that asking if the war was worth it was “not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation.”
IF WE’D ONLY KNOWN! George Will on ABC: “If in 2003 we’d known what we know now—the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the difficulty of governing and occupying a society in which, once you lop off the regime, you’re going to have a civil war in a sectarian tribal society—the answer I think is obviously no.”
BLAME IT ON THE HANDLERS Kenneth Pollack of Brookings, one of the most influential proponents of the war, now says that he had a different war in mind and the occupation was handled incompetently, asserting, “it didn’t have to be this bad.”
Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq has just been published in an updated e-book edition.