When Do the Pundits Apologize?

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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
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.

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

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

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 fghting 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 confict, 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

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

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.

24, 2005

Wanniski [send him mail]
runs the financial/political advisory service Wanniski.com.

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