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Iraq War: When Liberal Hawks Like Bill Keller Repent


judith miller and bill keller the new york times

Judith Miller, whose reporting on alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction would later embarrass the New York Times, and Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times from 2003 to 2011, who supported the invasion--then recanted his support.

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The list of liberal writers and thinkers who supported the Iraq war is long. As Bill Keller, now a columnist with The New York Times (after almost a decade as its executive editor), summed it up in a recent list, it goes like this: 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, Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic, Paul Berman of Dissent, Christopher Hitchens, and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A analyst. Plus Keller himself.

In early September, 2011, Keller repented inj a 3,400-word essay for the New York Times Magazine.

The piece warrants analysis on several levels. It's a reflection of the distance liberals traveled away from their principles and back over the course of the first decade of the 20th century. It illustrated the degree to which they were willing to suspend disbelief in order to allow the Bush administration to have its way in Iraq. And it shows, sadly, the degree to which, even today, they attempt to justify the means by which they were taken in, even though their own evidence points out how they could have avoided the deception--and the self-deception.

Bill Keller has been with the New York Times since 1984. He was its Moscow and Johannesburg bureau chief in the 1990s, then foreign editor, then managing editor and an Op-Ed columnist for two years (2001-03) before he was appointed executive editor in July 2003, following the scandal involving 'Jayson Blair and Howell Raines. In September, he was replaced as executive editor by Jill Abramson, which allowed him to return to the OpEd page and again write opinion freely, though he had done so quite freely in a regular column at the magazine as well.

This brief history shows that as an American journalist, Keller was among the most seasoned, well traveled, most-exposed to deceitful regimes. This was not the sort of journalist you'd think could easily be hoodwinked. He was not executive editor in the run-up to the war. But on the OpEd pages of the Times, he was quite the cheerleader, along with Friedman. One column, "The Loyal Opposition," was particularly unflattering (to Keller) for belittling critics who, he claimed, were against war because they had business interests in the Middle East. And there was his "I-Can't-Believe-I'm-A-Hawk" column (that was its actual title. You can look it up) of Feb. 8, 2003, just under a month before the beginning of the invasion, where he wrote:

We reluctant hawks may disagree among ourselves about the most compelling logic for war -- protecting America, relieving oppressed Iraqis or reforming the Middle East -- but we generally agree that the logic for standing pat does not hold. Much as we might wish the administration had orchestrated events so the inspectors had a year instead of three months, much as we deplore the arrogance and binary moralism, much as we worry about all the things that could go wrong, we are hard pressed to see an alternative that is not built on wishful thinking.
As it turns out, that was exactly what had happened: the administration had orchestrated events. It was all arrogance. There was no plan for reconstruction. Everything that could go wrong, and was predicted to go wrong, did, and more (think Abu Ghraib). And the war itself, not its alternatives, was built on wishful thinking. "It should perhaps have caught our attention that Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on humanitarian intervention (the Pulitzer-winning “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”) and who had endorsed armed intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda, and at an earlier time in Iraq, did not support the invasion of Iraq in 2003," Keller now says, belatedly.

"And if we were paying closer attention, as we should have been," Keller continues, "we would have been more alarmed by the fact that the authors of the invasion had shown open contempt for the kind of 'nation building' that went into the Marshall Plan. They seemed to have in mind a hit-and-run democracy project for Iraq, which was folly."

It is remarkable, however, that one of the nation's pre-eminent journalists, at the nation's--and the world's--pre-eminent newspapers, could not have been paying closer attention. Keller concedes now that Iraq was not the host country to al-Qaeda or to its terrorism, but he knew that--everyone knew that--even then. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless, murderous tyrant, and Keller had justified invading Iraq just on that pretext alone, but Hussein was one of seven countries "designated as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department," Keller concedes, "and in the other six cases we settled for sanctions as recourse enough."

Keller knew that, too, even then. And he knew, as most liberal hawks knew, that the Bush administration was not equipped to shepherd Iraq's reconstruction in the long term.

It comes down to this line: "President Bush got it wrong. And so did I."

The line says it all, including the enduring arrogance--the backhanded attempt at hiding behind the fact that the president of the United States "got it wrong," and equating that mistake, not to mention the office, with the writer's mistake, from his perch on the Times's OpEd page.

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