Frank Rich’s “Iraq Everlasting: We are still stuck in 2003, and it isn’t (only) George W. Bush’s fault” (New York Magazine, June 4, 2014) is a laundry list, however partial, of those in “the liberal Establishment” who “enlisted in the stampede” that would slaughter many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the next decade.
Rich’s list begins with Senate Democrats — Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry — and extends to those of “the so-called liberal media, much of which cheered on [George W. Bush's] war with a self-righteous gravity second only to Dick Cheney’s.”
The list covered “the East Coast liberal media cabal,” as Bill Keller, the New York Times op-ed writer whom Rich quotes, put it in his column “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club” (N.Y. Times, Feb 8, 2003). The self-disbelieving members of the “hawk club” were “op-ed regulars at this newspaper and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek.”
Among them were Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Matthew Yglesias, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Dan Savage, Jacob Weinberg and Andrew Sullivan. Berman was a cultural commentator turned advocate of “liberal interventionism” in “Terror and Liberalism” who decided that bombing and blasting people into bits would help “foment a liberal revolution.”
Friedman is a N.Y. Times columnist who wrote with an insufferable pomposity, a few weeks before Bush’s “ultimatum” to Saddam Hussein: “Mr. Bush’s audacious shake of the dice appeals to me” (“The Long Bomb,” March 2, 2003, N.Y. Times). Or, as Tony Judt put it in “Bush’s Useful Idiots” (London Review of Books, Sept. 18-21, 2006), Friedman’s “pieties are always road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability.” Hence his durability.
Rich’s essay is a journalistic followup on Judt’s historical assessment, and Judt, who died four years ago, was scathing. These “‘tough’ new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics,” wrote the historian whom I admire. They “display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense.”
How could that have happened?
Keller concluded: “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.”
True, liberals are suckers for conceits such as “reform” and relieving other peoples of “oppression,” but did they truly believe, at that juncture of history, that their country needed protection from a puny country in the Middle East?
By then it was known that Iraq had suffered a great deal under the victor’s imposition of a no-flight-zone and other clampdowns since the Persian Gulf War, was it not? There were academic reports that more than half a million babies had died as a result.
More practically, did Keller and other liberal hawks believe that Hussein had intercontinental missiles capable of delivering nuclear bombs or any other weapons of mass destruction to a land 10,000 km away?
Didn’t they wonder, as Richard Dawkins did: “Why did Bush suddenly start threatening to invade Iraq when he did, and not before?” (“Bin Laden’s Victory,” The Guardian, March 21, 2003).
The English ethologist and biologist asked this apparently after listening to Bush declaim, on March 18: “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing.”
Wasn’t it clear that Bush was drunk fancying himself to be a lawman Hollywood moviemakers’ Wild West? “The United States Has Gone Mad,” another Briton, John le Carré, had decided two months earlier: “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War” (The Times, Jan. 15, 2003).
Rich was moved to write “Iraq Everlasting” by Michael Hastings’ posthumous book “The Last Magazine. The book describes how the bloviators at the author’s employer, The Newsweek, and elsewhere shifted their stance en masse to support Bush’s war, from 2002 to 2003.
John R. MacArthur was similarly moved by the same book to write “In Praise of Michael Hastings” (Harper’s, June 19, 2014). In doing so, he quotes another mindless pronouncement: Fareed Zakaria writing in the real Newsweek: “I believe that the Bush administration is right: this war will look better when it’s over. … Weapons of mass destruction will be found.”
MacArthur notes “some omissions” in Hastings’ account. One of them is David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and that reminds me: In the fall of 2004, I went to Town Hall when The New Yorker held an event for the publication of Seymour Hersh’s “Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.” In the book, Hersh, only too famous for his 1969 expose of the My Lai Massacre, meticulously describes Bush’s willful ignorance, indifference, swagger and the resulting brutality that led to the Abu Ghraib torture.
Remnick served as emcee on that occasion. Did he admit to his error on stage? No. Worse, what he said in his introduction to Hersh’s book was patently contradictory and absurd.
“No one was able to expose in fact and in full, before the war,” he asserted, “what the Administration’s critics were rightly asserting as a matter of possibility and likelihood — that the White House’s claim of an imminent threat were false or exaggerated.”
Rich wrote his piece before the swift rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in the past few weeks, and that makes it all the more timely.
The suddenly expanding turmoil, some suggest, may scrap the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. It was that imperialist act that created the oddly shaped national borders of the region and the unnatural ethnic and sectarian divides. The Balfour Declaration that would spawn Israel three decades later followed a year after the agreement.
Perhaps those tough liberal hawks a decade ago secretly wanted to nullify those one-sided actions a century ago.
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.