TNR Sends Its (Limited) Regrets

TNR Sends Its (Limited) Regrets

Wars do not happen on their own. They are initiated and prosecuted by particular people. This rather simple point seems to have eluded many within the offic…


Wars do not happen on their own. They are initiated and prosecuted by particular people. This rather simple point seems to have eluded many within the offices of The New Republic. In an entire issue of quasi-mea culpa, TNR addresses the question, “Iraq: Were We Wrong?” In the good fashion of a typically fractious family (and that is meant as no insult), the answers from The Editors, Peter Beinart (the editor), Martin Peretz (the editor in chief), Leon Wieseltier (the literary editor), Fouad Ajami (contributing editor)–as well as the contributions from author Paul Berman, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, Brookings Institution fellow Kenneth Pollack, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum–are often at odds with one another. Yet they generally share a defiantly defensive tone as they sidestep toward, “yes, but.” Many boil down to this: “if the war had been run my way, then it wouldn’t have been such a screw-up.”

Perhaps. But this war was George W. Bush’s war (and shared with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice). And the TNRers who favored an elective war at that particular time were also in favor of handing the keys to a rather expensive, dangerous and difficult-to-drive car to a man whom many of them had already pronounced untrustworthy on other fronts (the 2000 election, the tax cuts, etc.) This may have been the non-conservative hawks’ most profound miscalculation. They were blinded by their own desires for war (for the appropriate reasons, of course), and their enthusiasm was not sufficiently tempered by a rather harrowing reality: Bush would have to be the one to get right the occupation, reconstruction and democratization of Iraq–a tremendously challenging set of tasks requiring intelligence, understanding, sophistication, concentration, and open-mindedness. Talk about naive.

The lead editorial does not address this fundamental error committed by the TNR‘s war boosters. Instead, the editors explain they had supported the war for two reasons: “one primarily strategic, one primarily moral.” The “simple” strategic reason was that war was “the only way to ensure that Saddam Hussein never acquired a nuclear weapon.” The moral cause was to rid the world of one of the “ghastliest regimes of our time.” The editorial concedes that the strategic rationale “now appears to have been wrong,” since no evidence has been found of an active nuclear weapons program in Iraq. Before the war, Bush and Cheney repeatedly claimed that Iraq had revived a vigorous nuclear program, but the evidence was weak. Remember the sixteen words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech? More importantly, Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had reported that his inspectors had “found no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear-related activities in Iraq.” The editorial acknowledges “we should have paid more attention to these warning signs.” Yet it reports, “we feel regret–but no shame.” That is because the “moral” rationale–liberating Iraq and countering “the forces of ignorance, fanaticism and bigotry” in the Arab world–has not collapsed. While this argument for war may have been mugged by reality, the magazine argues, it has not been negated.

But before the war, TNR had a different take. In an editorial posted on August 22, 2002, and entitled “Best Case,” the editors dismissed going to war because Hussein was evil. (“He is not the only evil leader in the world, and we are not proposing to act against other evil leaders.”) It pooh-poohed invading Iraq to bring democracy to Mesopotamia. (“But this, too, cannot explain why the absence of democracy in Iraq is more odious and more threatening than the absence of democracy in many other states.”) But there was “one spectacular thing” that made the “villain in Baghdad” an appropriate target: “He is the only leader in the world with weapons of mass destruction who has used them….That is the case.”

This editorial did not justify war–and the loss of American and Iraqi lives–with references to exporting freedom to oppressed Iraqis. Nor did it limit the “strategic” mission to preventing Hussein from ramping up a nuclear weapons program. The editors essentially accepted the core of Bush’s argument: Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (which meant chemical and biological weapons) and he had used WMDs in the past (in the 1980s, while the Reagan-Bush administration was courting and assisting him). Today’s TNR, for some reason, is not fully in touch with its wisdom of 2002.

In a subsequent editorial–“Time Out,” posted on January 30, 2003–the magazine did focus more on the prospective nuclear threat posed by Hussein. But much of the editorial’s energy was directed at “liberals” and “Bush’s critics” for promoting “abject pacifism.” This editorial did not address the concerns of war opponents who (with good cause) were questioning Bush’s overstatements regarding the WMD threat presented by Iraq and the alleged but unproven connection between Iraq and al Qaeda. Nor did it respond to the arguments that Bush and his lieutenants could not be trusted to handle the post-invasion job correctly. Rather than evaluate–let alone ponder–such inconvenient thoughts, the magazine’s editors preferred to ridicule opponents of the war.

In the current package, Wieseltier comes close to granting the opponents of the war credit–though he does not. “If I had known that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported this war,” he writes. He goes on to note, “But I was deceived. Strategic thinking must have an empirical foundation. You do not act against a threat for which there is little or no evidence. Yet that is precisely what the United States did.” And that is what foes of the invasion said before the war. Numerous experts countered Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN Security Council. Skeptics–those who bothered to look at the hard facts, to review the UN inspections reports, to consider the available intelligence and pre-9/11 statements of the Bush administration–asked for the “empirical foundation” of the threat hawked by Bush, but the case presented by the administration remained slim. And Bush’s melodramatic overselling of the arguments for war–his claim that Iraq was sitting on “massive stockpiles” of unconventional weapons, his assertion that Hussein was “dealing with” al Qaeda, his comment that it was possible Iraq already had nuclear weapons–justifiably enhanced suspicion.

Wieseltier does accuse Bush of misleading the nation. “There was nothing to preempt,” he writes. “It really is as plain as that. An absence of regrets and recrimination on the part of a supporter of this war now amounts to an absence of intellectual honesty….Whether or not the president lied, he was not speaking he truth.” Wieseltier reports he continues to support the war, but adds, “I have come to despise some of the people who are directing it.” Bush detractors who saw through the mis- or disinformation can belatedly welcome Wieseltier to the club, though he is unlikely to celebrate membership in this group.


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For his part, Beinart explains that his major lapse was that he tried too much “not to be partisan” in analyzing the case for war. He maintains he “distrusted” the Bush administration, but yearned to transcend that distrust. In doing so, he recalls, he could “feel superior to the Democrats.” Now, he concludes, his “efforts not to be limited proved limiting.” He did not realize that the Bush crowd would place “ideology over expertise.” But there were obvious indications before the war this was Bush’s M.O. His White House locked out State Department experts. Military predictions (and plans) that caused too much inconvenience were dismissed.

Prior to the war, Beinart questioned the critics (rather harshly) more than the administration he “distrusted.” In seeking a partial explanation for Beinart’s attitude toward the debate over the war, it is tough to refrain from referring to that cliche about Middle East alliances: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus, TNR ended up in partnership with–or a foot soldier for–a man it neither trusted or respected.

Juxtaposed against Beinart’s I-tried-too-hard apologia, Peretz’s onward-to-glory piece–no reconsideration at all–is refreshing. For him, the war remains “just ” and “honorable” because it has brought freedom to Iraqis. He says nothing of Bush’s prewar justifications. There is no mention of WMDs or the al Qaeda connection. He still seems overjoyed that the United States defeated an Arab tyrant, whatever may come next. But he is not entirely candid. “Alas,” Peretz observes, “we Americans do not naturally look to history for cautionary lessons about the future. Had we done that, our post-Saddam expectations would have been different. But we didn’t, and so we couldn’t anticipate that the various peoples of Iraq, understandably apprehensive about anyone in power, would not take our good intentions for granted.” What do you mean “we,” paleface? Before the war, many experts on Arab history and society cautioned that this was possible, if not likely, and warned that the post-invasion period would be rife with exactly the sort of resentments and troubles that “we” have seen.

It is difficult to assess whether the mistakes of TNRers were prompted by hubris or innocence. Berman writes that he “tried to persuade people that severe opposition justifies intervention, no matter what other explanations Bush may have offered.” Which means he was willing to cheer on a president who conceivably had a rather different vision of the war and suitable outcomes. Berman concedes, “military professionals can’t outperform their commanders back in Washington, I suppose.” That is little consolation for those who have bore the costs. Friedman reports that he never believed Saddam possessed WMDs “that could threaten us.” But, he writes, “Once it was clear to me that the Bush team had chosen a warpath, I wanted to see it done in a way that maximized the chances for a decent outcome in Iraq that could help tilt the Arab-Muslim world onto a more positive slope.” But this acknowledges he was willing to support a war based and sold on a lie and to back a “team” that would not be honest with the American public and the world. Can a war fought for the wrong reason by a bunch of dissemblers end well? Such a war does seem, at least, a riskier venture than a war fought for the right reason by leaders of integrity. Ajami writes, “For me, it was a just war that issued out of a deep American frustration with the ‘road rage’ of the Arab world.” But how has this act of frustration addressed the rage other than to intensify and spread it? “We have rolled history’s dice,” Ajami writes. Come back in 20 years, he advises, and we shall see if we won the gamble.

It might take The New Republic that long to concede its opponents in the prewar debate were correct on key points. Peretz and several of his comrades act as if their post-invasion realizations are bolts from blue, when, in fact, they were the arguments they dismissed–or derided–when it mattered most. In this we’re-not-sorry special issue, Kenneth Pollack’s piece stands out. He recounts a debate he had in the fall of 2002 with Bill Galston, a University of Maryland professor and former colleague of his in the Clinton administration. Galston held up a copy of Pollack’s book, The Threatening Storm, and said, “If we were going to get Ken Pollack’s war, I could be persuaded to support it. But we are not going to get Ken Pollack’s war; we are going to get George Bush’s war, and that is a war I will not support.”

Pollack says that several months ago he sent Galston a note conceding he had been right. “The primary cause of our current problems in Iraq,” Pollack writes, “is the reckless, and often foolish, manner in which this administration has waged the war and the reconstruction….The thought that nags at me the most is that I, too, should have foreseen what Bill Galston did–that the Bush administration would not fight the war properly.” He adds, “the willingness of members of the Bush administration to abandon their past records of prudence and match Saddam’s reckless and delusional behavior with their own may have been the most important element missing from my own thinking about the war.” Pollack remarks that he remains “deeply torn about the decision to invade Iraq.” (Note to Beinart: how about a cover piece: “I Was Right,” by Bill Galston?)

It may be too much to expect the (somewhat) hesitant hawks of The New Republic to have questioned the invasion of Iraq on the basis of eschewing unilateralism, abiding by interpretations of international law that proscribe such an invasion, or resisting a preemptive military strike and occupation until all other courses of action were considered and attempted. But there were plenty of signs (though Pollack takes issue with this) that the Bush administration was hyping the threat and not adequately preparing for the invasion and the occupation. And the clever thinkers at TNR should have been smart enough to have absorbed Galston’s warning: no matter how clever they were, this would not be their war. It would not be fought for or on their terms. Thinking otherwise was their big mistake. The reluctant regretters of TNR were either duped by Bush or by themselves–or, maybe, both. They are not yet ready to admit that. Let’s hope that matters in Iraq do not disintegrate to such a degree that they are forced to reconsider the limited extent of their regrets.


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