When Do the Pundits Apologize?
Jude Wanniski
August 23, 2005


Memo To: Bill Kristol & Friends
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: You Got Us Into the War, No?

At some point, Bill, aren't you going to have to look back and say you really goofed, in the myriad articles you wrote in your Weekly Standard, promoting the war in Iraq? You must have seen the most recent cover story of the American Prospect magazine, which asks pointedly: "Are mere pundits responsible when an administration’s policy goes wrong?," and then: "When their sophistic arguments helped sell and sustain it, very." There you are in a caricature with three other pundits who helped cook up the war with your neo-con pals in the Bush administration, the pundits being Charles Krauthammer, Thomas L. Friedman, and Christopher Hitchens. Within the text, Harold Meyerson, a Prospect editor-at-large, throws in a fifth pundit, Victor Davis Hanson, a historian cheerleader for the war at National Review. But as you are the most important of the quintet, he leads off with you, in the following excerpt. [You can read the article in full at the link provided above.]

William Kristol: The Strategist

Since 1998, it’s been Weekly Standard Editor Kristol who’s argued most persistently that getting rid of Saddam Hussein should be the central goal of U.S. foreign policy. So even before the debris of 9-11 had settled, Kristol -- like his longtime neoconservative compatriot Paul Wolfowitz, and, indeed, like the President himself -- saw an opportunity to take the coming war to Iraq. “I think Iraq is, actually, the big unspoken elephant in the room today,” Kristol said on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered the day after the attacks. “There’s a fair amount of evidence that Iraq had very close associations with Osama bin Laden in the past.”

In the months following the attack, Kristol wrote and spoke about Hussein’s arsenal with exquisite attention to detail, however fictitious those details were to prove. On NPR’s Talk of the Nation that October, for instance, he said, “We know that over the last three or four weeks, he has moved many of his chemical and biological weapons programs in preparation for possible U.S. attacks.”

As intra-administration battles raged among the hawks in the Pentagon and the more cautious voices at the CIA and the State Department, Kristol seized every opportunity to undermine the credibility of those who failed to appreciate that Hussein was the source of all danger. On November 19, 2001, he and his sometimes co-author Robert Kagan wrote, “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. What will it take for the FBI and the CIA to start connecting the dots here? A signed confession from Saddam?” Whatever else Kristol and Kagan may be, the heirs to Holmes and Watson they are not.

During the war itself, Kristol turned his attention to the shape of a post-Hussein Iraq. Characteristically, he dismissed nettlesome complexities that did not bolster his case for war, substituting a more comforting, albeit inaccurate, analysis of his own. “There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America … that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all,” he reassured NPR listeners in April 2003. “Iraq’s always been very secular.”

Such misrepresentations of reality lead naturally to their spawn: making excuses when things don’t go according to plan. Kristol consistently downplayed the disasters that attended the U.S. occupation. Of the then-unfolding Abu Ghraib scandal in May of 2004, Kristol told FOX News viewers that “it is insane for this country to be obsessed about a small prisoner-abuse scandal.” And this January, while he did forthrightly deplore the U.S. mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he introduced to the world a whole new standard of legal and moral culpability by explaining that neither George W. Bush nor Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel who drafted the new prisoner policies (he’s now attorney general), were responsible because they never “ordered that these things be done!”

Charles Krauthammer: W.’s Maggie

Of all those public voices urging the overthrow of Hussein on Bush, the most insistent and hectoring was columnist Charles Krauthammer’s. Krauthammer was to George Bush Junior what Margaret Thatcher had been to George Bush Senior, whom she famously instructed, as he was considering his response to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, “Don’t go wobbly.” That, in fact, was the headline of one Krauthammer column during the run-up to war; it could justly have been the headline to a dozen such columns.

Krauthammer’s self-assigned mission, even more than Kristol’s and Kagan’s, was to discredit those in the administration who in any way impeded the rush to war; he became the outside voice of those in the Pentagon, the vice president’s office, and elsewhere who raged at such caution. In the spring of 2003, with then–Secretary of State Colin Powell seeking to slow down the rush to war, Krauthammer thundered: “No more dithering. Why does the president, who is pledged to disarming Hussein one way or the other, allow Powell even to discuss a scheme that is guaranteed to leave Saddam Hussein’s weapons in place?”

Krauthammer’s contempt was directed at “old Europe” as well. “There should be no role for France in Iraq,” he proclaimed on March 12, 2003 (the eve of the war), “either during the war … or after it. No peacekeeping” -- as if patrolling post-Hussein Baghdad would be some rare privilege.

Since Hussein’s fall, Krauthammer has been walking the compulsory cheer beat, largely echoing the administration’s upbeat prognoses for Iraq. When the interim government of Iyad Allawi was about to come into office, Krauthammer opined on Fox News that “it’s the beginning of the end of the bad news. I mean, we’re going to have lots of attacks, but the political process is under way.” Not surprisingly, he deemed the public horror at Abu Ghraib “a huge overreaction. Nobody was killed. Nobody was maimed.”

Victor Davis Hanson: The Analogist Apologist

Hanson has been called President Bush’s favorite historian, and for good reason. Soon after 9-11, the San Joaquin Valley classics professor began writing regularly for The National Review, demanding we go into Iraq, imparting martial lessons from Greece and Rome to an America abruptly at war. In short order, Hanson became a fellow at Palo Alto’s Hoover Institute, a dinner companion of Bush and Dick Cheney, and the most unswerving defender of administration policies -- even the ones the administration barely bothers to defend.

Hanson, you see, knows things you and I don’t. His considerable certainty as to the strategic soundness of the war has been rooted not just in supposition but in historical analogy. “In the same way as the death of Hitler ended the Nazi Party and the ruin of the Third Reich finished the advance of fascist power in Europe,” he predicted in 2002, “so the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi dictatorship will erode both clandestine support for terrorism and murderous tyranny well beyond Iraq.” Oops.

On his second try, Hanson foresaw an end to the strife once Hussein was killed or captured. “The Romans realized this,” he wrote, “and thus understood that Gallic liberation, Numidian resistance, or Hellenic nationalism would melt away when a Vercingetorix, Jugurtha, or Mithradites all were collared, dead, or allowed suicide.” Hanson is living proof that you can’t take historical analogies to the bank.

In August of 2002, as Cheney raised the idea of taking the war to Iraq in a major speech to a Veteran of Foreign Wars assemblage, Hanson not only endorsed the idea but proposed that the government place “as many as 250,000 [troops] in immediate readiness” (to his credit, that number suggested he was an abler military strategist than anyone in Rumsfeld’s shop). And yet, somehow, when his quarter-million soldiers failed to materialize, he managed to decide that 150,000 (the actual number) was just fine -- even writing, as the occupation descended into bloody hell, that more troops might have meant more casualties in the war’s opening days.

As anti-war sentiment began to mount, Hanson dismissed it. “We are told,” he wrote contemptuously in February 2002, “an attack against Iraq will supposedly inflame the Muslim world. Toppling Saddam Hussein will cause irreparable rifts with Europeans and our moderate allies, and turn world opinion against America.” What to Hanson was nonsense looks like pretty fair prophecy today.

It was Abu Ghraib, though, that tested Hanson’s true mettle as supreme apologist, and he rose to the occasion. “We do not know how many of the abused, tortured, and humiliated prisoners in the war’s aftermath either belonged to the cohort of 100,000 felons let lose by Saddam on the eve of the war or were part of the Hussein death machine or themselves were recent killers who had assassinated and blown apart Americans,” he wrote.

To Hanson, what Abu Ghraib imperiled wasn’t America’s honor or reputation for decency; after all, what dishonor attended the torture of prisoners suspected to be Hussein’s thugs? No, the danger was that even conservatives had begun to call for Rumsfeld’s scalp, threatening the architect of the war and the occupation that Hanson had defended with every analogy he could adduce. Desperate times require desperate measures, and it was not until Abu Ghraib that Hanson termed Rumsfeld “America’s finest secretary of defense in a half-century.”

Our failures in Iraq, Hanson now insists, are failures not of planning but of will. Though there are no anti-war demonstrations to speak of, and though hardly any political leaders are demanding withdrawal, Hanson smells a fifth column. “Whether this influential, snarling minority -- so prominent in the media, on campuses, in government, and in the arts -- succeeds in turning victory into defeat is open to question,” he laments. He’s counting on Bush -- bolstered by his references to Churchill -- to stay the course.

Thomas L. Friedman: The Enabler

In some ways, the well-known New York Times columnist doesn’t fit with the others on this list. A neoliberal rather than a neoconservative, Friedman never drank all the Kool-Aid. But he was a vital -- perhaps the vital -- enabler of the war, because from his Times perch, he convinced many a reader (elite and layperson alike) who never would have been persuaded by the likes of Kristol that the war needed to be fought. (Honorable mention in this category, sadly enough, goes to New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who used a week during which lead “Comment” writer Hendrik Hertzberg was on vacation to make the magazine pro-war.)

For Friedman, the reasons the administration gave for going to war were always so much piffle. “I think the chances of Saddam being willing, or able, to use weapons of mass destruction against us are being exaggerated,” he wrote in September 2002. But Friedman had his own reasons for encouraging a war. “What terrifies me is the prospect of another 9/11 … triggered by angry young Muslims, motivated by some pseudo-religious radicalism … . So I am for invading Iraq only if we think that doing so can bring about regime change and democratization. Because what the Arab world needs desperately is a model that works … .”

Friedman sounded all the right cautions. He wrote that democratizing Iraq would be difficult. He argued that the war needed international legitimacy. He even wrote that he was “against going to war without preparing the ground in America, in the region, and in the world at large to deal with the blowback any U.S. invasion will produce.”

And yet, and yet … Friedman persisted in arguing for war, his war, though it was increasingly clear that when war came, it would hardly resemble the war he desired. In late January 2003, as war loomed, he again enumerated all his fears, only to write the most fatefully circular sentence in recent punditry: “But if war turns out to be the only option, then war it will have to be.”

Even after Baghdad fell, Friedman still viewed the merits of his own model occupation as the main story, while the emerging absurdities of the administration’s war were just so much distraction. On June 4, 2003, he wrote, “The failure of the Bush team to produce any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is becoming a big, big story. But is it the real story we should be concerned with? No. It was the wrong issue before the war, and it’s the wrong issue now.” As time went by, Friedman finally realized that all was folly. “What is inexcusable is [the administration] thinking that such an experiment would be easy, that it could be done on the cheap, that it could be done with any old army and any old coalition … . That is the foolishness of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. My foolishness was thinking they could never be so foolish.”

Friedman’s foolishness seems rooted in an almost willed ignorance of the figures in the Bush administration and the worldviews that defined them. How much attention to administration folkways did one need to pay to realize that Bush would never fund the war through a tax increase, nor care if he had broad international backing or not? “I have to admit I’ve always been fighting my own war in Iraq,” Friedman wrote in the summer of 2003. “Mr. Bush took the country into his war.” Was it too much to ask the nation’s most important foreign-policy journalist to focus on Bush’s war -- particularly because, well, it was Bush, and not Friedman, who was president?

Christopher Hitchens: Trotsky in Baghdad

Hitchens’ war is, if anything, more idiosyncratic than Friedman’s. Unlike Friedman, however, Hitchens enthusiastically supports Bush’s war, though it’s less than even money that Bush would recognize his war as the one Hitchens describes in his endless number of print and electronic venues.

Hitchens’ war pitted his comrades in the democratic Kurdish resistance and the Iraqi secular left against the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein -- and today, against the murderous savagery of the Baath Party holdouts and Islamic fundamentalists. Were this the only aspect of the conflict, who on the left would not join Hitchens in his embrace of the war? To this analysis, Hitchens has appended what critic Irving Howe once called “the infatuation with History” through which some Marxists justified their support for numerous flawed causes. In Hitchens’ Iraq, modernity and self-determination duel with primitivism and thugocracy, and History has ordained the outcome.

This Marxistic certitude can, though, lead to a certain indifference to the small stuff. “The thing is to realize that the other side is going to lose,” Hitchens said on MSNBC’s Hardball in November 2003. “The point is that the United States is on the right side of history in the region … . When Bush said, ‘Bring it on,’ I completely agreed with him … . They will be doing the dying in the long run [emphasis added]. They will rue the day they tried.”

In addition to History, there’s history -- that is, Hitchens’ own, on the left, from which he grows more and more willfully remote. Iraq is the third war, after Kosovo and Afghanistan, that Hitchens has defended against the far left. He is rightly repelled by that left’s a priori anti-Americanism (two decades at The Nation can do that to more sober sensibilities than Hitchens’). But he then pulls a sleight of hand that many war hawks use: He magnifies the left’s influence to the whole of liberal America, so that any liberal who opposed the Iraq War is suddenly in league with Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark. “I can only hint at how much I despise a Left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist,” he wrote in The Washington Post, as though he were bravely taking on a genuine force in American politics.

If you’re not with Hitchens, Bush, and History, you’re against them -- and probably a dupe of bin Laden’s. “[Senator John] Kerry adds something else that annoys me very much,” Hitchens told Tim Russert in a September 2004 interview in which he endorsed Bush for re-election. “He gives the impression, sometimes overtly, that our policy has maddened people against us and … incited hatred in the Muslim world and so on, in which, again, there is an element of truth.” Kerry, of course, was overtly right; but when Hitchens finished twisting the senator’s words, he was objectively on the side of evil: “If people say, ‘Let’s have a foreign policy that does not anger the bin Ladenists’ … what are they asking for?”

Kerry, evidently, can’t see the broad sweep of History, whose verdict makes right even the bad things that happen to good people. What are a few American lives if they serve History’s purposes? “The U.S. armed forces are learning every day how to fight in extreme conditions, in post-rogue-state and post-failed-state surroundings, and with the forces of medieval tyranny,” Hitchens wrote in the Los Angeles Times last October. “Does anyone think this is not an experience worth having, or that it will not be needed again?”

* * *

The point here is not just that the pundits’ predictions were wrong -- or, in the case, of Friedman, right, but he chose to ignore them -- or their post-facto justifications pathetic. The point is that in the sway of ideology, or historical imperative, or loyalty to the administration’s hawks, they misrepresented supposition as fact, excused the misconduct of administration officials, and neglected to consider the predictable consequences of the war they promoted. If we truly lived in the culture of consequences that conservatives profess to support, the role of these pundits in our national conversation would be greatly, and justly, diminished.

Harold Meyerson