The New York Times after 9/11 was notorious for consistently siding with the Bush administration, especially backing the Iraq war thanks to the stenography of Judith Miller.
Bill Keller has just stepped down from his role as Executive Editor of the paper and writes this revealing essay about why he and many “liberals” embraced the Iraq war. His main reason (and we can be thankful for his honesty)? He wanted to be manly and tough and not be seen as a weak-willed liberal.
If this is the cream of the media crop, the corporate press should be trusted even less than we thought.
During the months of public argument about how to deal with Saddam Hussein, I christened an imaginary association of pundits the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club, made up of liberals for whom 9/11 had 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 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 C.I.A. analyst whose book, “The Threatening Storm,” became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat. (Yes, it is surely relevant that this is exclusively a boys’ club.)
In several columns I laid out justifications for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. There were caveats — most significantly, that there was no reason to rush, that we should hold off to see whether Iraq’s behavior could be sufficiently contained by sanctions and inspections. Like many liberal hawks, I was ambivalent; Pollack said he was 55 to 45 for war, which feels about right.
But when the troops went in, they went with my blessing. Of course I don’t think President Bush was awaiting permission from The New York Times’s Op-Ed page — or, for that matter, from my friends in the Times newsroom, who during the prewar debate published some notoriously credulous stories about Iraqi weapons. The administration, however, was clearly pleased to cite the liberal hawks as evidence that invading Iraq was not just the impetuous act of cowboy neocons. Thus did Tony Judt in 2006 coin another, unkinder name for our club: “Bush’s Useful Idiots.”
Iraq was not, as Afghanistan had been, the host country and operational base of the new strain of Islamic fascism represented by Al Qaeda. It is true that Hussein hosted some nasty characters, but so did many other dictators hostile to America. At the time, Iraq was one of seven countries designated as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department, and in the other six cases we settled for sanctions as recourse enough. And his conventional military — what was left of it after it was laid waste in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 — was under close supervision.
That leaves the elusive weapons of mass destruction. We forget how broad the consensus was that Hussein was hiding the kind of weapons that could rain holocaust on a neighbor or be delivered to America by proxy. He had recently possessed chemical weapons (he used them against the Kurds), and it was only a few years since we had discovered he had an active ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Inspectors who combed the country after the first gulf war discovered a nuclear program far more advanced than our intelligence agencies had believed; so it is understandable that the next time around the analysts erred on the side of believing the worst.
We now know that the consensus was wrong, and that it was built in part on intelligence that our analysts had good reason to believe was cooked. Should we — those of us without security clearances — have known it in 2003? Certainly we should have been more suspicious of the administration’s assurances. Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution, concedes that he should have drilled deeper into the claims of the intelligence crunchers; he was misled, he says, by the fact that they had seriously underestimated Hussein in the past. A few journalists — notably Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight Ridder newspapers — emphasized conflicting intelligence that questioned Hussein’s capabilities. But assuming we couldn’t know for sure, what would have been acceptable odds? If there was only a 50-50 chance that Hussein was close to possessing a nuclear weapon, could we live with that? One in five? One in 10?
Colin Powell, who oversaw the campaign that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 and who was the most cautious member of President Bush’s war cabinet, was reluctantly convinced (duped, he would later say) that the W.M.D. risk merited military action. His word carried great weight. The journalist and author Fred Kaplan was one of many, I suspect, who joined the hawk club on the strength of Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council six weeks before the invasion.
“I was particularly struck by the tape-recording of an intelligence intercept that Powell played — a phone conversation in which one Iraqi Republican Guard officer tells another to clean out a site before the inspectors get there,” Kaplan recalled. We learned much later that the Iraqi officers wanted to erase traces of chemical weapons that had been stored before the first gulf war. Kaplan dropped out of the hawk club within a month when he concluded that, whether or not an invasion was morally justified, he doubted the Bush administration was up to the task. The rest of us were still a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe 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.