A silver lining amid the dismal outpouring of news from Iraq has been the unbroken parade of conservative (and liberal hawk) commentators who now admit–with mea culpas, half-apologies and sour complaints about Bush Administration incompetence–that they were misguided about the war. “The first thing to say,” David Brooks professed in April, “is that I never thought it would be this bad.” “I think it’s a total nightmare and disaster and I’m ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it,” Tucker Carlson has affirmed. Says a recent New Republic editorial, “The central assumption underlying this magazine’s strategic rationale for war now appears to have been wrong.” But the most influential prowar pundit has thus far held his tongue: Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who calls himself an “unapologetic hawk,” and whose journal was the foremost incubation chamber for neoconservative thinking and strategy on Iraq.
For Kristol and the Standard, Bush’s war against Saddam marked the culmination of a protracted crusade. In 1997 the magazine, owned by Rupert Murdoch, published a special issue titled “Saddam Must Go: A How-To Guide.” The authors of one article–current US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz–proclaimed, in language that would later become familiar, “Saddam is not ten feet tall. In fact, he is weak. But we are letting this tyrant, who seeks to build weapons of mass destruction, get stronger.”
The events of 9/11 created a historic opportunity for Kristol and his editors. Within days of the attacks, the Standard had already identified Saddam Hussein as a principal culprit for the violence. The cover of the Standard‘s October 1, 2001, issue contained a single word–“WANTED”–above stark black-and-white photographs of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. “Evidence that Iraq may have aided in the horrific attacks of September 11 is beginning to accumulate,” Kristol (and contributing editor Robert Kagan) intoned in an editorial. Over the next eighteen months, the Standard mounted a furious campaign against Iraq with a torrent of essays and editorials that, as we now know, were long on hubris and wishful thinking, and short on accuracy:
§ “It is not just a matter of justice to depose Saddam. It is a matter of self defense: He is currently working to acquire weapons of mass destruction that he or his confederates will unleash against America and our allies if given the chance.” (Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire,” October 15, 2001)
§ “If all we do is contain Saddam’s Iraq, it is a virtual certainty that Baghdad will soon have nuclear weapons.” (Gary Schmitt, “Why Iraq?” October 29, 2001)
§ “Iraq is the only nation in the world, other than the United States and Russia, to have developed the kind of sophisticated anthrax that appeared in the letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.” (Kagan and Kristol, “Getting Serious,” November 19, 2001)
§ “Today, no one knows how close Saddam is to having a nuclear device. What we do know is that every month that passes brings him closer to the prize.” (Kagan and Kristol, “What to Do About Iraq,” January 21, 2002)
§ “According to an Iraqi newspaper…Saddam told the bomb- makers to accelerate the pace of their work…Saddam has been moving ahead into a new era, a new age of horrors where terrorists don’t commandeer jumbo jets and fly them into our skyscrapers. They plant nuclear bombs in our cities.” (Kagan and Kristol, “Back on Track,” April 29, 2002)
This incendiary language, directed at a grieving, traumatized nation, appeared in the pages of the nation’s most influential conservative journal of opinion–one that has a symbiotic relationship with the present Administration. “Dick Cheney does send over someone to pick up thirty copies of the magazine every Monday,” Kristol bragged to the New York Times on the eve of war. And the Washington Post has reported that Kristol meets regularly with Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. Kristol’s clout in Washington, combined with his bellicosity toward Iraq, inspired in mid-2002 a phrase from columnist Richard Cohen: “Kristol’s war.”
A hallucinatory quality infused the Standard‘s Iraq coverage right up through the first phase of the war, and beyond. “In all likelihood, Baghdad will be liberated by April,” contributing editor Max Boot averred in February 2003, adding, “This may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history–events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall–after which everything is different.” A delusionary note was sounded immediately after the fall of Baghdad, when a Standard editorial, written by executive editor Fred Barnes, wondered if George W. Bush would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for toppling Saddam.
In mid- to late 2003, as the Iraqi resistance proliferated, the Standard dug in its heels with a series of editorials demanding additional resources for the war effort, while simultaneously expressing a rosy view. “Iraq has not descended into inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence,” the editors announced last September. “There is food and water. Hospitals are up and running.” As recently as June, the editors informed their readers that “we are actually winning the war in Iraq,” and went on to say “the security situation, though inexcusably bad, looks as if it may finally be improving; Moktada al-Sadr seems to have been marginalized, and the Shia center is holding; there is nothing approaching civil war.”
At the same time, the Standard worked assiduously to forge a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Over the past eight months, the magazine has published three cover stories on the “connection” by staff writer Stephen Hayes. “Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein,” Hayes wrote in November, in an article praised by Cheney, “had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction….” (Emphasis added.) Hayes’s second cover story arrived on newsstands just weeks before a staff statement by the 9/11 commission transformed his theory into a pile of rubble. (In the Standard‘s June 28 issue, Kristol dismissed the work of the 9/11 commission as “sloppy” and “unimpressive.”)
The performance of Kristol & Co. raises disconcerting questions about the magazine. Is the Standard, which publishes the work of respected commentators like Christopher Caldwell, Joseph Epstein and John DiIulio Jr., a weekly compendium of responsible conservative opinion, or is it a haven for charlatans, conspiracy theorists and con men? In a recent appearance on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air, Kristol groused about the Bush Administration’s handling of the war but was rather reticent on the subject of Iraq’s WMD. Not so long ago, Kristol addressed the matter with confidence. Before US troops entered Baghdad, he assured his readers, “The war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction.” The verdict is in; we have the facts; the matter has been clarified. Writers like David Brooks and Tucker Carlson, who have an extensive history with the Standard, have already unburdened themselves. It’s time for William Kristol to follow their lead and say he was wrong.