Center for American Progress

It’s Not What Bill Keller Believed About Iraq—It’s Who

It’s Not What Bill Keller Believed About Iraq—It’s Who

Former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller’s explanation of why he supported the Iraq war doesn’t inspire much confidence in our punditocracy, writes Eric Alterman.

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Center row from left, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sit in the General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters on September 12, 2002. Many liberals were convinced by Powell's speech at the United Nations on Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. (AP/Elise Amendola)
Center row from left, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sit in the General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters on September 12, 2002. Many liberals were convinced by Powell's speech at the United Nations on Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. (AP/Elise Amendola)

Writing in The New York Times Magazine this coming Sunday, Bill Keller, until Monday the paper’s executive editor, addresses the same topic as my “Think Again” column of last week: the misguided and overly rosy assumptions that led the “liberal hawks” of 2003 to support George W. Bush’s—or more accurately Dick Cheney’s—relentless march to war.

In it, Keller recalls his charter membership in what he calls “the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” made up of liberals for whom 9/11 stirred a fresh willingness to employ American might. It was a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations, including, among others, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times; Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former CIA analyst whose book The Threatening Storm became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat.

Keller gives a number of reasons for his support of the war. He relied heavily on the judgment of Pollack and on the words of Colin Powell regarding the threat of weapons of mass destruction. He also cites the views of Slate’s Fred Kaplan, who found himself convinced by Powell’s speech as well.

Kaplan and Keller were certainly not alone. A study by Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register, found that Powell’s speech was taken as gospel by almost everyone who “mattered.” It was reported to contain "a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "a smoking fusillade … a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," so that "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction." "The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it."

"Powell’s evidence," we were told, was "overwhelming," "ironclad … incontrovertible," "succinct and damning … the case is closed." "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein." "If there was any doubt that Hussein … needs to be … stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."

And yet Powell employed all kinds of weasel words in his address. Over and over, Cranberg noted, he attributed his charges to the likes of "human sources," "an eyewitness," "detainees," "an Al Qaeda source," "a senior defector," "intelligence sources."

At a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria just before his talk, The Guardian reported that Powell complained to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the claims coming out of the Pentagon—particularly those made by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz—could not be substantiated (Straw denies that the meeting took place). Powell allegedly told the foreign secretary that he had just about "moved in" with his intelligence staff to prepare for his speech but had left his briefings "apprehensive," fearing that the evidence might "explode in their faces." Stories reported the secretary of state throwing the documents in the air and declaring, "I’m not reading this. This is bullshit!" And so it was, though it was good enough for all of the liberal hawks.

As part of his rethinking, Keller writes: “In the end, the costs were greater than anyone anticipated because of calamitous mistakes in execution.” Actually, this is false.

In an article entitled “Iraq: The Economic Consequences of War,” published in The New York Review of Books in December 2002, William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale and a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers between 1977 and 1979, gave an estimate of the cost of war at potentially $1.6 trillion, which was based on a detailed assessment that was originally published as a lengthy study by Nordhaus for a book he published with the distinguished political scientists and economists Carl Kaysen, Steven E. Miller, Martin B. Malin, and John D. Steinbruner.

Keller offers a number of other excuses for why he feels he was right to be so wrong about the war at the time: “I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly. … I could not have known how bad the intelligence was. … and maybe [we were] a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”

That last reason is a key one. If ever there were a “ref” that was successfully worked, it was New York Times pundit and soon-to-be Executive Editor Bill Keller. Note how small the universe of “serious” people Keller is willing to include in his discussion. The only person he is willing to credit with foresight is Kaplan, who was himself in favor of the war when it took place. Keller did not apparently take seriously the critiques I discussed last week by, say, Al Gore or Ted Kennedy or Gen. Anthony Zinni (much less Barack Obama).

If you take a look at a debate that Slate conducted about the war in February 2003, you will find that Keller had plenty of company. He was joined in his support of the war by Henry J. Aaron, Jonathan Alter, Paul Berman, Mark Bowden, Gregg Easterbrook, Paul Glastris, Steven Rattner, Paul Glastris, Heather Mac Donald, Peggy Noonan, John H. McWhorter, and Charles Murray, who gave as his entire reason, “I’m in favor, for the reasons that the administration argues.”

But who was as opposed, and why? In the Slate debate you can find former Al Gore aide Eli Attie, the historian Alan Brinkley, the author and former soldier William Broyles, the author and labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan, the distinguished editor Jason Epstein, the pundit Robert Kuttner, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the famed editor and “father of neoliberalism” Charles Peters, and many others, including yours truly. How strong was their reasoning? Let’s take a look at the tape:

  • Eli Attie: “the last time I checked the U.N. charter, invasion of sovereign nations wasn’t a popularity contest. There’s a dangerous precedent here, and an even more dangerous distraction: Osama Bin Laden’s still at large. The Taliban’s back in Afghanistan. North Korea’s openly threatening total war. Is Iraq really the biggest threat we face? Is it really worth enraging our allies, committing billions of dollars and thousands of lives? Saddam’s villainy isn’t enough. If there’s a broader case to be made, this administration has yet to make it.”
  • Alan Brinkley: “a) a compelling case has not, to my mind, been made that Iraq is an immediate danger to us or to the world; b) because we have not persuaded the international community to cooperate in this effort and thus risk isolating ourselves from the rest of the world and greatly intensifying anti-American sentiment, which is already dangerously high; and c) because we have seen no credible plan for how the United States—which is currently failing miserably in its efforts to rebuild Afghanistan—will create a stable post-Hussein Iraq once the war is over.”
  • Robert Kuttner: “America’s national interest and the world’s security are better served by keeping Saddam Hussein bottled up via the current strategy of inspection and containment… the risks of invading Iraq—wider destabilization, a double standard for North Korea, global resentment of the Bush administration’s swagger, and the arousal of militantly anti-American feelings—far outweigh the benefits. Bush has backed into a sensible policy of tough multilateral containment. He’s about to abandon it for a reckless war.”
  • Charles Peters: “This country has been conned by Karl Rove and the superhawks. They’ve succeeded in changing the subject from George W. Bush’s failures and embarrassments, making Iraq number one on the national agenda for nearly six months at the expense of more important matters—like finding Osama Bin Laden, securing peace between Israel and Palestine, drastically improving the FBI’s and CIA’s ability to deal with terrorism, keeping nuclear weapons from being used by the nations that already have them, including North Korea, and engineering economic recovery here at home. If we end up paying practically all the bill for the war with Iraq and the subsequent military occupation, that money won’t be there for badly needed health and education programs.”
  • Robert Reich: “The costs are much higher than the benefits. On the cost side, an invasion will further radicalize the Arab world, thereby playing into the hands of Islamic extremists. It will divert American attention from two more important goals—achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians and reducing the likelihood that North Korea will make and then sell nuclear bombs. And an invasion of Iraq will result in a long, expensive, difficult occupation. The benefits of invading Iraq are far smaller.”

Here’s what I wrote (though actually, what I wrote was longer and contained more reasons, but was edited for space):

Eric Alterman:

1. The war against al-Qaida is not yet won, and this war will shift resources away from it.

2. We remain enormously vulnerable to another terrorist attack, and this war will shift resources away from securing the "homeland."

3. The war will cause the very problem it is alleged to address: anti-American terrorism.

4. Pakistan is far more likely to give a nuclear weapon to terrorists; North Korea is a greater danger to world peace. We should address those problems immediately, rather than hope they will solve themselves while we are preoccupied with Iraq.

5. The war will place Israel in mortal danger of a gas attack and rally both sides in the Palestinian conflict in ways that can only be counterproductive to peace.

6. George Bush was right in the first place: "The United States must be proud and confident of our values, but humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course." We should not be in the business of "nation building," something at which, as evidenced by Afghanistan, we suck.

7. George Bush and the men surrounding him—Colin Powell excepted—are not honest men any more than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan were. The nation is still paying the price for its misplaced trust in those leaders in matters of war and peace.

8. Much of the uniformed military, including Maj. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as the head of the U.S. Central Command as well as George W. Bush’s representative to the Middle East peace negotiations, remain unconvinced that this war is necessary at this time. Read a talk he gave on the topic recently here. If Gen. Zinni is unconvinced, I’m unconvinced.

As Keller himself alludes to, the reporting of Knight-Ridder (as well as that of The Guardian and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, whom he does not mention) provided plenty of reason to distrust the Bush administration’s propaganda push toward war. But I suspect that the most important reason why such people weren’t listened to was the fact that they weren’t the cool kids and weren’t part of this new non-“surrender monkey” liberal club. This is the underlying message of Keller’s not-quite mea culpa. And it’s not one that gives us much hope of our punditocracy being much use in helping to guide our thinking the next time a president tries to rush the country into yet another unnecessary and potentially ruinous war.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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Eric Alterman

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