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.