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How Not to Apologize for Supporting an Unnecessary War

‘Tis the season for Iraq war apologies from the elite class that helped send us there. They are varyingly sincere–Jon Chait, for example, admits [1] he was wrong but just hopes Iraq doesn’t discredit the idea of humanitarian intervention on the whole–and opportunistic. Mike Riggs at Reason notes [2] the odd masculinism in Bill Keller’s long-winded reappraisal [3] that blames a coterie of unexpectedly hawkish writers. David Frum says [4] if he had raised objections, they wouldn’t have mattered; “I could have set myself on fire in protest on the White House lawn and the war would have proceeded without me.”

Yet none of those bother me quite as much as Ezra Klein’s [5], who calls his support for the war an “analytical failure”:

… at the core of my support for the war was an analytical failure I think about often: Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq [6] war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration. In particular, I supported Kenneth Pollack’s Iraq war.

Take it away, Jacob Bacharach [7]:

No. The core of your support for the war was a moral failure. A guy who murders his wife doesn’t get to hide behind a claim about bad analysis after he discovers that she wasn’t in fact screwing the mailman. Oh, you invented an imaginary war to support? That isn’t bad analysis. It’s a crime.

You will note that the commentariat is currently full of decennial mea culpas, and what that tells you is that people like Ezra Klein who skipped the protests in order to type in favor of the death of thousands have been richly rewarded with careers in the popular media. This makes their post-hoc apologies completely of a kind with their antebellum cheerleading: it entails no personal risk and carries with it the prospect of professional advancement.

There’s something so monstrously neutral, so Ezra Klein about the way he frames his apology–not my fault! Just bad data!–that reveals the folly of what Jay Rosen, Conor Friedersdorf, and others have called the “View from Nowhere [8]” posture of objectivity. To say “It wasn’t worth doing precisely because the odds were high that we couldn’t do it ‘right'” assumes it’s actually a matter of odds, not morality or Constitutional prerogatives. Can Klein answer what odds would have been good enough to justify the death of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a war in which the United States only had the faintest national interest? One shouldn’t fault him for his view on the war as a college student, and it’s too much to ask for someone on the Washington Post’s masthead to ever accept noninterventionist precepts. But after being deceived, is a little skepticism of either the information the government releases to the public or the projection of American power abroad too much to ask?

Even Paul Wolfowitz weighed in two days ago in an interview [9] with the Sunday Times, not admitting much but saying America had been overambitious and mishandled some aspects of the war:

he said there “should have been Iraqi leadership from the beginning”, rather than a 14-month occupation led by an American viceroy and based on “this idea that we’re going to come in like [General Douglas] MacArthur in Japan and write the constitution for them”. He accepted that too many Iraqis were excluded by a programme to purge members of the ruling Ba’ath party, that the dissolution of the Iraqi army was botched and that the “biggest hole” in post-war planning was not to anticipate the possibility of an insurgency. “The most consequential failure was to understand the tenacity of Saddam’s regime,” he said.

Based on this open letter [10] to him in Harpers, Andrew Bacevich is expecting a bit more comprehensive of an apology. He turns Wolfowitz’s dissertation adviser Albert Wohlstetter against him:

What would Albert Wohlstetter have done? After Iraq, would he have been keen to give the Bush Doctrine another go, perhaps in Iran? Or would he have concluded that preventive war is both reckless and inherently immoral? That, of course, had been the traditional American view prior to 9/11.

Given the state of things and our own standing ten years after the start of the Iraq war, what would Albert do? I never met the man (he died in 1997), but my guess is that he wouldn’t flinch from taking on these questions, even if the answers threatened to contradict his own long-held beliefs. Neither should you, Paul. To be sure, whatever you might choose to say, you’ll be vilified, as Robert McNamara was vilified when he broke his long silence and admitted that he’d been “wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam. But help us learn the lessons of Iraq so that we might extract from it something of value in return for all the sacrifices made there. Forgive me for saying so, but you owe it to your country.

Not everybody has chimed in, though. Some guy over at Breitbart can’t figure out [11] why Team Bush isn’t out in force defending the war from the MSM’s anniversarial depredations.

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#1 Comment By JGF On March 20, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

How about Richard Perle on NPR this morning:

[13]
————————————————
“MONTAGNE: Just one final question. There’s no question you were a great proponent of going into Iraq and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Ten years later, nearly 5,000 Americans troops dead, thousands more with wounds, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or wounded; when you think about this, was it worth it?

PERLE: I’ve got to say I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done in the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can’t a decade later go back and say, well, we shouldn’t have done that.”
——————————————-
NOT A REASONABLE QUESTION?!

#2 Comment By Jack Shifflett On March 20, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

In the worst of all possible worlds, the Very Serious People (as Paul Krugman calls them) are going to carefully analyze the Iraq debacle so that the next time they decide to the wrong thing, they’ll do it much more efficiently–probably, I’m guessing, by using more drones. They’ll also no doubt follow the example of today’s Republican Party and focus on “better messaging”. A lot of foreigners may die in distant lands, but as long as American casualties and expenses are kept minimal, and as long as we can put a happy face and a flag lapel pin on it all, not many of us–or at least not enough of us–will care all that much; and even if we did, what could we possibly do about it?

#3 Comment By OldVet On March 20, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

Glad to see Ezra Klein offering a mea culpa. But when we launched the assault on Iraq, G.W. Bush was President, Dick Cheney was Vice-President, Douglas Feith was cooking up bogus intelligence in his special unit, and Paul Wolfowitz was providing the ideological rationale. What could possibly go wrong with that team at the helm?

Any thinking person should have immediately recognized that given the management team that hatched the plan and carried it out, the War was a disastrous proposition with no chance of success.

#4 Comment By Phil Perspective On March 20, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

They are varyingly sincere–Jon Chait, for example, admits he was wrong but just hopes Iraq doesn’t discredit the idea of humanitarian intervention on the whole–and opportunistic.

Have you gone back and looked at what Chait wrote back in 2003? If you did, you wouldn’t be as kind to him.

#5 Comment By wm On March 20, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

I regret ever supporting that war. I had no power or influence at the time, but I still regret being wrong. Because of what happened, I have done my best to dissuade others from supporting the coming war with Iran and imperialist adventures elsewhere.

All I can say for myself is that I sincerely believed, at that time, that the government would not ever lie about something as serious as weapons of mass destruction. If Bush said that is what Hussein had and planned to use, why would he lie? I was honestly shocked that Saddam did not use his presumptive vast arsenal of chemical and other weapons when we invaded, so convinced was I by the narrative sold to us by the government.

That is a mistake I will never believe again. In the years that followed I learned that both parties, and all governments, lie constantly. If anything, they only tell enough truth to make their lies convincing. I learned that modern mechanized warfare is always evil, even when (especially when) the United States wages that war. I came to understand that the United States is an empire – not a policeman, not a benevolent hegemon, but an empire.

“Never again” is wishful thinking, of course, but I can at least hang on to my own personal “never again.” I can teach my kids, friends, and family what I learned. What else can you do?

#6 Comment By Sheldon On March 20, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

The focus on Ezra Klein’s mea culpa is heavy-handed and absurd. Klein was a college student at the time the war started, and his column now is more thoughtful than the criticism of it here suggests. I would reserve the heaviest fire for those who were in responsible positions at the time, in the government or the pundit class.

#7 Comment By James Canning On March 20, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

Paul Wolfowitz claims he and the other Iraq War promoters did not anticipate an insurgency? False. George W. Bush and the rest of his war team agreed to keep the Iraqi army etc intact after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, TO PREVENT CIVIL WAR.

The above agreement was made with then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

#8 Comment By James Canning On March 20, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

JGF – – Great post. Richard Perle is well aware the neocons literally conspired to set up an illegal invasion of Iraq using knowingly false intelligence.

#9 Comment By Zach On March 20, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

College student or no, it didn’t take an Ivy League education to tell that that war was fraudulent and headed for disaster—just interest, courage and an appreciation for just how serious war is. You can say Klein was naive, but as somebody his age who was on a campus surrounded by ambitious young college Democrat-types who supported the war, the real reason he bought into it is because as a budding elite, he was supposed to. If at any point in his career he bites the hand that feeds him maybe I’ll reconsider my view of him.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 21, 2013 @ 12:04 am

“In the years that followed I learned that both parties, and all governments, lie constantly. If anything, they only tell enough truth to make their lies convincing. I learned that modern mechanized warfare is always evil, even when (especially when) the United States wages that war. I came to understand that the United States is an empire – not a policeman, not a benevolent hegemon, but an empire.”

That is the disillusionment, profound and cruel, that has wounded all my sensibilities too. It has been compounded and confirmed by the further lie that there was actually change from that that we could believe in.

True believers in America are persons without a country.

#11 Comment By Chris 1 On March 21, 2013 @ 2:34 am

JGF: I heard that same line and was amazed.

The interview demonstrated that Richard Perle and those of his intellectual heft should never be left unsupervised in a room full of facts.

#12 Comment By TomB On March 21, 2013 @ 5:37 am

wm wrote:

“[The war was] a mistake I will never believe again. In the years that followed I learned that both parties, and all governments, lie constantly. If anything, they only tell enough truth to make their lies convincing.”

Yeah; one thing that I think that isn’t really appreciated fully is how the Iraq war has become a fundamental yardstick of sorts. That is, something from which alone so much can be told.

E.g.:

Wanna defining characteristic between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party?

Overwhelmingly, the former would repudiate that war, while the latter still embraces it.

Wanna defining characteristic between the “old” “establishment” conservatives and those conservatives rebelling against same?

Overwhelmingly the former would still embrace that war whiles sthe latter rejects it.

And then, most instructively perhaps but also perhaps most ominously for the Republican Party, wanna defining characteristic between those who voted for Obama last time and those who voted for Romney?

Overwhelmingly I think the former reject that war while—perhaps not overwhelmingly but certainly to a significant degree—the latter embraces it.

Ten years on then and it can seem the war is taking on a sort of totemic significance: There’s those who believe in it, and those who don’t.

And, to me at least, like the Vietnam War it seems that the further away we get from it the more it’s repudiated.

#13 Comment By James Guest On March 21, 2013 @ 6:27 am

A couple of days ago I heard, here in Australia on the ABC (probably Radio National) and interview with Paul Bremer who effectually blamed those who didn’t provide enough troops for the debacle (not that he said anything like “debacle”). He said of the removal of all or nearly all Baathists that it was the most popular thing done early in the war amongst Iraqis. And, as to the idea that the Iraqi army could have been kept on to do some of the maintenance of law and order or anti-terrorist activity he said it virtually didn’t exist. FWIW.

#14 Comment By Adam On March 21, 2013 @ 10:27 am

You know, I wish we were engaged in a more substantive national conversation about the failings that led us into a disastrous war. But the moral preening on display in that excerpt from Jacob Bacharach isn’t going to get us there. Ezra Klein didn’t murder his wife. Klein didn’t “favor the death of thousands.” And in fact the decision to go to war involves a very difficult moral *and* analytic calculus.

To pretend that the morality of war isn’t somehow related to both the odds of winning and the possible consequences of non-intervention is a willful oversimplification that, perversely, makes us more likely to make the same blunders again in the future. People like Jacob Bacharach aren’t going to be able to simply stamp their feet in the future and insist that they were right about Iraq, so everyone should listen to them now. Rather, they’re going to have make the actual case against the next war, both moral and analytic.

Putting this another way: I’m glad that some war supporters are now admitting their mistakes, and I wish that more would do so. I also wish that more war opposers, rather than running a victory lap, would admit that the case against the war, however obviously correct in hindsight, was not as clear in the run-up, so that we might instead focus on ways of not making the same mistake next time.

#15 Comment By Jake On March 22, 2013 @ 11:52 am

Adam, you posted “I also wish that more war opposers, rather than running a victory lap, would admit that the case against the war, however obviously correct in hindsight, was not as clear in the run-up, so that we might instead focus on ways of not making the same mistake next time.”

Anti war voices and arguments were completely and very purposefully shut out in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and they continue to be. The military industrial complex, along with the agro industrial complex and the ascendency of corporations, has us all by the throat and is sucking the life out of our communities, our world and ourselves.

#16 Comment By Mike On March 22, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

I opposed the war in Iraq from early on. There were just too many things that didn’t make sense to me:
1) How could Saddam be working on weapons of mass destruction when the embargo was in place. We know that he had previously had chemical weapons, but there didn’t seem to be any real evidence that he still had them or was working on them.
2) I remember Dick Cheney and others were hinting at a connection between 9-11 and Iraq. Again I saw zero evidence of this.
3) Cheney, Limbaugh and others were spouting off about a relationship between Sadaam and Al Queda. At the time I found it to be difficult to believe that a theocratic group like Al Queda would have anything to do with a secular ruler like Sadaam it just didn’t make any sense. The evidence that was presented for this was flimsy at best. I recall Limbaugh saying that there was proof of a working relationship with Al Queda and Sadaam because somebody who supposedly had ties to Al Queda was treated for a broken leg at a Bagdad hospital. I’m sorry but that hardly proves a working relationship between Sadaam and Al Queda.
4) Another thing that raised my suspicions was the way that so many in the Bush administration seemed to be so eager for the war to start. There didn’t seem to be any real effort to determine whether or not the WMDs really existed. I recall Rumsfeld hold a press conference of some type prior to the war; he seemed to be close to peeing his pants with excitement at the thought of going to war.
5) We were going to war against terrorism. Ok, that’s a rather large group. Does that mean we should invade “allies” of our that definitely support terrorism (e.g. Saudi Arabia)?
6) Likewise were going to spread democracy in the Middle-East, again does that mean we should have invaded Saudi Arabia as well? I always wondered what the Saudi leadership had be thinking at the time.
7) I wondered if this was a war of choice, then why all the talk about permanent military bases? It seemed to me that this had been well thought out ahead of time.
8) Cheney et al. were claiming that we would be welcomed as liberators. I was hoping that this would be true, but the history of the Middle-East is a history of colonialism (Ottoman Empire, the British etc…). I figured that we would be viewed as just one more foreign occupier.

To this day I do find myself frequently asking why we went to war in the first place and I don’t think that there is a clear cut answer largely because I think that there were many different reasons why various administration officials and pundits supported the war. I do think that with Cheney peak oil played a role.

Also, I was serving in the Reserves at the time. Somehow, I was one of the few who did not get mobilized to serve in the war. I must admit that I’m not complaining.

#17 Comment By Joeseph Hill On March 22, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

David Frum is the son of a liberal Canadian icon. Frum chided our prime minister for not entering the war. When there was an outbreak of mad cow disease, Frum observed that America’s temporary blockge of meat imports from Canada would have been lifted very quickly by Bush if Canada had simply followed America into war in Iraq in addition to the troops we sent to Afghanistan. How is that for a for a rationale?

#18 Comment By sglover On March 25, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

Adam whines about “moral preening”, then decides to wallow in it:

“I also wish that more war opposers, rather than running a victory lap, would admit that the case against the war, however obviously correct in hindsight, was not as clear in the run-up, so that we might instead focus on ways of not making the same mistake next time.”

As if this lame deflection hasn’t been tried about 20,000 times since before the war began: Yes, it’s true that war boosters bought and pushed a boatload of obvious lies, but there were a couple of nuances that war opponents didn’t adequately emphasize, ergo they’re just as wrong, and rude, too.

On strategic, pragmatic and moral grounds the case for the war was extremely weak. The gang that pushed for war peddled numerous exaggerations, obfuscations and outright lies that were exposed at the time — which to any sentient adult had to weaken the pro-war argument even more. Under these circumstances, by default war sceptics had the better argument. Enumerating the many cogent arguments against the thing is just piling on.

It’s stupid and insulting to whine about “victory laps”. I don’t wish to discount to the awful consequences the war had for Iraqis, but it is worth emphasizing that many of our current economic problems have been exacerbated by the debacle’s astonishing costs. Most Americans are tangibly poorer than they otherwise would have been. There’s no “victory lap” in there at all.