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A 'Sorry' State of Affairs

Oops. Some pundits who boosted war admit their crystal balls were flawed.

June 06, 2004|Gale Holland | Gale Holland is a Los Angeles journalist.

The New York Times editor's note apologizing for a lack of skepticism in some of its prewar reporting (a "mini culpa," as Slate's Jack Shafer called it) was just the latest in a veritable typhoon of apologies raining down from Iraq war cheerleaders. They seem to have finally realized that the case for war wasn't quite as clear-cut as they once thought, and that regime change is not quite so simple.

Kenneth Pollack launched the trend. A former Clinton administration National Security Council member and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, Pollack argued for invasion in his vastly influential prewar book "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."

Pollack's prewar case went like this: Saddam Hussein was intent on building a nuclear arsenal, which he was then likely to use on the U.S. "For more than a decade," he wrote in the New York Times in February 2003, "we have consistently overestimated the ability of inspectors to impede the Iraqi efforts, and we have consistently underestimated how far along Iraq has been toward acquiring a nuclear weapon."

As late as June of last year, writing again for the Times, he was still certain we'd find weapons, arguing that "the fact that the sites we suspected of containing hidden weapons before the war turned out to have nothing in them is not very significant. American intelligence agencies never claimed to know exactly where or how the Iraqis were hiding what they had." He acknowledged that "it is also possible that Iraq did not have the capacity to make the weapons," but he quickly put those doubts aside. "Given the prewar evidence, this is still the least likely explanation."

Then, in an Atlantic Monthly piece in January, after Hussein's capture and the incredible vanishing WMD, Pollack acknowledged that he'd probably been wrong all along. "What we have learned about Iraq's WMD programs since the fall of Baghdad leads me to conclude that the case for war with Iraq was considerably weaker than I believed beforehand."

Pollack was followed by a much more reluctant Christopher Hitchens, a pro-war writer who famously cut his ties to many liberals -- and the Nation magazine -- over his disgust with the peaceniks. Hitchens largely based his arguments for war on moral grounds: We created Hussein; it was up to us to free the Iraqis from his clutches. But he clearly expected the Iraqis to be more grateful.

After reading Pollack's apology, Hitchens concluded in Slate that he should "concede at least something." And so he did: "The thing that I most underestimated is the thing that least undermines the case. And it's not something that I overlooked, either. But the extent of lumpen Islamization in Iraq, on both the Khomeinist and Wahhabi ends (call them Shiite and Sunni if you want a euphemism that insults the majority), was worse than I had guessed." Thanks, Hitch. I guess.

David Brooks, formerly a member in good standing of the Weekly Standard's neocon war brigade and now a New York Times columnist, pried eyes wide open with his mea culpa in the New York Times, also in April.

"I never thought it would be this bad," Brooks confided. "I didn't expect that a year after liberation, hostile militias would be taking over cities or that it would be unsafe to walk around Baghdad. Most of all, I misunderstood how normal Iraqis would react to our occupation."

But like Hitchens, Brooks wants to make sure we don't think he's apologizing for the war itself. God forbid there should be an outbreak of true humility in the pundit class. "I still believe," he concluded, "that in 20 years, no one will doubt that Bush did the right thing."

Still, these hawks had the grace to disclose, however grudgingly, that they got things wrong. Which is more than you can say for some of the antiwar types who issued their own prophecies before the invasion.

Has anybody heard from Nation writer Jonathan Schell? He's the one who, in the weeks leading up to the invasion, issued the following warning: "To take [Iraq's presumed weapons of mass destruction] away, the United States will overthrow the Iraqi government. No circumstance is more likely to provoke Iraq to use any forbidden weapons it has. In that event, the Bush administration has repeatedly said, it will itself consider the use of nuclear weapons. Has there ever been a clearer or more present danger of the use of weapons of mass destruction?"

And where's Alexander Cockburn? In the early days of the war, he cautioned that just because things appeared to be going well, it didn't mean the troops would be able to march straight into Baghdad. In 1991, he noted, the Iraqi army still had plenty of firepower to put down rebellious Shiites despite six weeks of bombing by the U.S.

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