‘Sorry’ Seems to Be the Hardest Word

‘Sorry’ Seems to Be the Hardest Word

‘Sorry’ Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Read Slate‘s symposium of “liberal hawks” reassessing their support for the Iraq war.


OK, Saddam’s in jail and Iraq is the fifty-first (and best-funded) state. Are we better off than we were a year ago?

Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg asked a prominent group of “liberal hawks” to reassess their support for the war in light of what we now know. While he does not bring up issues relating to the Administration’s morality or mendacity–not to mention the horrible precedent of the world’s only superpower launching an allegedly “preventive” war–Weisberg offers a useful summary of what’s gone wrong from a narrowly pragmatic point of view:

There is “the huge and growing cost of the invasion and occupation: in American lives (we’re about to hit 500 dead and several thousand more have been injured); in money (more than $160 billion in borrowed funds); and in terms of lost opportunity (we might have found Osama Bin Laden by now if we’d committed some of those resources to Afghanistan). Most significant are the least tangible costs: increased hatred for the United States, which both fosters future terrorism and undermines the international support we will need to fight terrorism effectively for many years to come.”

Of the group of eight, Kenneth Pollack, George Packer and Fred Kaplan have all come to regret their previous arguments to various degrees. Pollack, who is a bit equivocal on this point, lays responsibility on his own overestimation of the dictator’s WMD capacity. Fair enough; this was something on which reasonable people could disagree, and as Paul Wolfowitz later admitted, was chosen by the Bush Administration as the focus of its propaganda efforts because of its perceived political potency. Kaplan (who changed his mind before the war began) and Packer lay the blame on the Administration’s postwar incompetence, which, they believe, makes a mockery of the sacrifices it has demanded from this country and from the Iraqis themselves.

The “I’m Still a Hawk” club includes Thomas Friedman, Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens and Fareed Zakaria. I think we can eliminate Hitchens from the ranks of prowar liberals at the start. As a leftist, he heaped Cockburn-like contempt on liberals; today it’s more of the Horowitzian variety. In either incarnation, he has had little use for Isaiah Berlin or John Dewey. Neither does it make sense to include Fareed Zakaria, who is a protégé of the neoconservative Samuel Huntington (and, like Huntington, a critic of “too much democracy”) and an unrepentant Reaganite. A smart conservative does not a liberal make.

My friend Paul Berman is as genuine a liberal as you will find anywhere, but his views on Iraq derive not from the logic of realist cost-benefit analysis but from his own metanarrative of the nature of the conflict between radical Islam and the West, laid out in his provocative book Terror and Liberalism. Paul may be right and I may be wrong, but in the meantime, given his analysis, it would be awfully difficult for him to consider the war a mistake no matter how badly the Administration screws it up. What he wants are better, more intelligent wars, but this war is better than nothing.

We are left, then, with Tom Friedman, America’s most influential foreign affairs interlocutor, as the sole actual liberal in this group still defending his original cost-benefit analysis. He continues to concede the best of intentions to Bush & Co. vis-à-vis their alleged commitment to making Iraq a beacon of democracy, human rights and pluralism for the Arab world in order to destroy the “terrorism bubble” that has arisen in these sick societies. But despite his inclination to give the US side the benefit of every conceivable doubt–he refers to Administration lies as “hype”–Friedman cannot come up with any evidence that the people making policy in this Administration even take these concerns seriously. And therefore his oft-proclaimed optimism–a more accurate term might be “ahistorical naïveté”–leads him down a road to hell in which he is effectively shilling for a group of people who have in mind exactly the opposite of what he insists needs to take place in Iraq (see under “Lebanon” and “Vietnam”).

Even if the Bush team cared a whit about the alleged objects of its ideological obsession, Iraq’s reconstruction was always likely to be well beyond the capabilities of this Administration (or any administration), given the country’s rampant factionalism, tribalism and various species of ideological radicalism. A successful Iraqi occupation was certain to be a far more daunting task than that of either Japan or Germany, both of which required years of careful planning and decades (at least) of US military involvement.

In light of Bush & Co.’s incompetent prewar planning, coupled with its arrogant unilateralist postwar mindset, it is awfully tempting for the disillusioned liberal hawks to contend that it did not give them the war they had been promised. (The founders of The New Republic made much the same argument about Wilson and World War I in 1919.) But as Weisberg points out, this escape hatch was nailed shut from the start. “This was elective surgery,” he admits, “and we had a pretty good idea what the surgeon’s limitations were. The choice wasn’t between an invasion led by George W. Bush and an invasion led by a President who would make an eloquent case to the world and build a credible global coalition. The alternatives were Bush’s flawed war or no war.” If I might reach around to pat myself on the back, I offered this very reason for opposition as number seven in the eight reasons I gave in a prewar Slate symposium in February 2003. It read, “George Bush and the men surrounding him–Colin Powell excepted–are not honest men any more than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan were. The nation is still paying the price for its misplaced trust in those leaders in matters of war and peace.”

To place one’s trust in the honesty and good will of Bush & Co. is a far more grievous error than liberals made in 1964, because we have been to this movie before. But here we are again, with a costly and divisive guerrilla war on our hands and a dishonest bunch of incompetents telling us everything is going swimmingly. America is truly Groundhog Day Nation: insisting on our right to ignore our own history and forever condemned to repeat it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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