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)