The market doesn’t work — not when it comes to conservative commentators.
Before the Iraq war, rightwing (and middle-of-the-road) pundits claimed Saddam Hussein was a dire WMD threat, that he was in cahoots with al Qaeda, that the war was necessary. The neoconservative cheerleaders for war also argued that an invasion of Iraq would bring democracy to that nation and throughout the region. They were wrong. But they have paid no price for their errors. They did not have to serve in Iraq. None, as far as I can tell, have had sons or daughters harmed or killed in the fighting there. They did not have to bear higher taxes, because George W. Bush has charged the costs of this military enterprise to the national credit card. Though they miscalled the number-one issue of the post-9/11 period, they did not lose their influential perches in the commentariat. Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, Gary Schmitt, Danielle Pletka and others (including non-neocon Thomas Friedman) who blew it on Iraq still regularly appear on op-ed pages and television news shows, pitching their latest notions about Iraq, Iran or other matters.
Foremost among this band is William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and former chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle. Kristol, a Fox News regular, has not seen his standing as a go-to conservative pundit suffered. Moreover, he has been rewarded with a plum posting. Time magazine’s new managing editor, Richard Stengel, has invited Kristol to become what Stengel calls a “star” columnist for the magazine.
Both Kristol and Stengel are likable fellows. I usually enjoy debating Kristol on television or radio. He’s no hater, and he’s no autopilot partisan. Stengel is a thoughtful and cerebral person who once was a senior adviser to cerebral Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat. So there’s nothing personal when I ask, why in the hell does Stengel believe that what America needs now is more Bill Kristol? (Slate media cop Jack Shafer criticized Stengel’s pick of Kristol by noting that “Kristol isn’t much of a deviation from Charles Krauthammer, an occasional Time ‘Essay’ writer.” Friendship declared: Shafer is a pal of mine.)
It’s too late to affect Stengel’s decision, but let’s take this occasion to review Kristol’s record on Iraq, courtesy of a rather cursory Nexis search. It holds no surprises.
On September 11, 2002, as the Bush administration began its sales campaign for the coming war, Kristol suggested that Saddam Hussein could do more harm to the United States than al Qaeda had: “we cannot afford to let Saddam Hussein inflict a worse 9/11 on us in the future.”
On September 15, 2002, he claimed that inspection and containment could not work with Saddam: “No one believes the inspections can work.” Actually, UN inspectors believed they could work. So, too, did about half of congressional Democrats. They were right.
On September 18, 2002, Kristol opined that a war in Iraq “could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East.”
On September 19, 2002, he once again pooh-poohed inspections: “We should not fool ourselves by believing that inspections could make any difference at all.” During a debate with me on Fox News Channel, after I noted that the goal of inspections was to prevent Saddam from reaching “the finish line” in developing nuclear weapons, Kristol exclaimed, “He’s past that finish line. He’s past the finish line.”
On November 21, 2002, he maintained, “we can remove Saddam because that could start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy.”
On February 2, 2003, he claimed that Secretary of State Colin Powell at an upcoming UN speech would “show that there are loaded guns throughout Iraq” regarding weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, everything in Powell’s speech was wrong. Kristol was uncritically echoing misleading information handed him by friends and allies within the Bush administration.
On February 20, 2003, he summed up the argument for war against Saddam: “He’s got weapons of mass destruction. At some point he will use them or give them to a terrorist group to use…Look, if we free the people of Iraq we will be respected in the Arab world….France and Germany don’t have the courage to face up to the situation. That’s too bad. Most of Europe is with us. And I think we will be respected around the world for helping the people of Iraq to be liberated.”
On March 1, 2003, Kristol dismissed concerns that sectarian conflict might arise following a US invasion of Iraq: “We talk here about Shiites and Sunnis as if they’ve never lived together. Most Arab countries have Shiites and Sunnis, and a lot of them live perfectly well together.” He also said, “Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.” And he maintained that the war would be a bargain at $100 to $200 billion. The running tab is now nearing half a trillion dollars.
On March 5, 2003, Kristol said, “I think we’ll be vindicated when we discover the weapons of mass destruction and when we liberate the people of Iraq.”
Such vindication never came. Kristol was mistaken about the justification for the war, the costs of the war, the planning for the war, and the consequences of the war. That’s a lot for a pundit to miss. In his columns and statements about Iraq, Kristol displayed little judgment or expertise. He was not informing the public; he was whipping it. He turned his wishes into pronouncements and helped move the country to a mismanaged and misguided war that has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. That’s not journalism.
In an effectively functioning market of opinion-trading, Kristol’s views would be relegated to the bargain basement. And he ought to be doing penance, not penning columns for Time. But — fortunate for him — the world of punditry is a rather imperfect marketplace.
DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.