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 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 the odd masculinism in Bill Keller’s long-winded reappraisal that blames a coterie of unexpectedly hawkish writers. David Frum says 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, 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 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.
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” 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 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 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 why Team Bush isn’t out in force defending the war from the MSM’s anniversarial depredations.