The Bush/Cheney war in Iraq has proven to be even more catastrophic than those who had the good sense to oppose it could have predicted. It has killed Americans and Iraqis, destroyed a functioning, albeit unfree nation, increased the threat of terrorism, destabilized the region, empowered our enemies–particularly Iran and Syria–inspired hatred of the United States across the globe and will ultimately cost American taxpayers upwards of a trillion dollars. It is, almost certainly, as Al Gore has noted, “the worst strategic mistake in the entire history of the United States.”
The problem the war creates for the punditocracy and the rest of the political establishment is twofold. First, the leaders they backed have not only been wildly incompetent but also impervious to reality. Offered a face-saving exit by the Baker Commission, Bush, Cheney & Co. prefer instead to double down on disaster. Second, there is the problem of the pundits’ individual reputations. If William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Lawrence Kaplan and David Brooks et al. are so smart, why were they so wrong about something so crucial? And why, given their sorry records, do they and their editors still think anybody ought to keep listening to them? At the very least, those they misled are entitled to an explanation.
Even those who have offered up their mea culpas have often sought refuge in what The American Prospect‘s Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias have aptly termed “The Incompetence Dodge.” Almost all the most prominent prowar neocons featured in Vanity Fair‘s recent report, for example, blamed the Bush Administration for failing to execute its beautiful war plans more efficiently.
Accompanying this tactic has been a corollary effort to smear the liberals who got it right rather than renounce the calumny that was heaped on their heads during the run-up to the invasion (from “pacifist” and “isolationist” to “anti-American” and even “pro-terrorist”). I first noticed this tendency when, in June 2005, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times‘s extraordinarily influential foreign affairs columnist whose analysis of the war proved completely misguided, accused liberals of “deep down” wanting America to fail in Iraq “because, with a few exceptions…they thought the war was wrong.” He presented no supporting evidence and named no names. More recently, Time‘s McCarthyite columnist Joe Klein explained that in “listening to leftists…it’s easy to assume that they are rooting for an American failure.” Andrew Sullivan has opined that antiwar liberals were “objectively pro-Saddam.” Slate editor Jacob Weisberg dismissed those whose analysis proved correct as “the isolationist left,” as if idiotic wars were the only means this great country has to engage the rest of the world.
The purest embodiment of this tendency, perhaps, is a recent screed by Roger Cohen, formerly the foreign editor of the Times, now the editor at large of the International Herald Tribune, author of the “Globalist” column and international writer at large for the Times. According to Cohen, writing in the IHT and on the Times website, the people who tried to save America and the world from the horrific catastrophe we must now endure are nothing but “hyperventilating left-liberals [whose] hatred of Bush is so intense that rational argument usually goes out the window.” We are “so convinced that the Iraq invasion was no more than an American grab for oil and military bases…[we] have forgotten the myriad crimes of Saddam Hussein.” We are “America-hating, over-the-top rant[ers] of the left–the kind that equates Guantánamo with the Gulag and holds that the real threat to human rights comes from the White House rather than Al Qaeda.” And for good measure, we also “equate the conservative leadership of a great democracy with dictatorship.”
To support these amazing charges, Cohen quotes exactly one person: Scottish MP George Galloway, last seen making an ass of himself on the reality TV show for washed-up gossip fodder, Celebrity Big Brother. Galloway, who was thrown out of the Labour Party, can be said to represent the “left-liberals” here and abroad about as well as, say, ex-KKK Grand Wizard and Holocaust denier David Duke represents the right.
Naturally curious about the actual evil-doers he had in mind, I e-mailed Cohen and politely asked for specifics. He was on vacation with his family and replied by BlackBerry that he would not be able to respond. A few minutes later, however, he apparently changed his mind and replied with a lengthy and rather hostile set of questions regarding my own views on Iraq, including: “What makes you think you can express an informed opinion…?”
The same Cohen column that inveighed against Bush-bashers contained an endorsement of what he called “an expression of moderate sanity,” a document titled “American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto,” which, he explained, “precisely because of its sanity…has received too little attention.” Cohen celebrates this manifesto–which, naturally, embraces the incompetence dodge–as an alternative to “sterile screaming in the wilderness, tired of the comfortably ensconced ‘hindsighters’ poring over every American error in Iraq, tired of facile anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism.”
Again, on the identities of these “hindsighters,” “screamers,” anti-Americans and anti-Semites “masquerading as anti-Zionists,” Cohen was silent. Had he taken a look at the 232 manifesto signatories, meanwhile, he’d have had trouble identifying more than three, counting generously, actual liberals. The roll is dominated by the likes of Walter Laqueur, Martin Peretz, Ronald Radosh and, I kid you not, Iran/contra adventurer Michael Ledeen.
So what’s the point of the exercise? Simple: Again, it is to discredit those on the left who were right about Bush and Iraq and remain so today. Shortly after the invasion, Bill Kristol tried to smear war opponents as “the Dominique de Villepin left.” Today such smears ought to be a badge of honor. There are few forces so powerful as the will to evade responsibility for one’s mistakes. Too bad it’s our brave young soldiers who must die for them.