The War Party has suffered significant defections since the proclamation of our great “victory” in Iraq last year, and that’s a good thing; but why would anyone take any of these people seriously? Take Tucker Carlson, the neocon punk with the P.J. O’Rourke haircut on CNN’s Crossfire, a vehement supporter of the war in Iraq who is having second thoughts: “I supported the war and now I feel foolish,” Mr. Carlson said.
I’m just struck by how many people like me who were instinctively distrustful of government forgot to be humble in our expectations. The idea that the federal government can quickly transform the Middle East seems odd to me for a conservative. A basic tenet of conservatism is that it’s much easier to destroy things than to create them—much easier, and more fun, too.
Yes, that’s true—if you’re a five-year-old. But what if you are a conservative pundit with a national audience?
If Carlson was ever even peripherally familiar with the most basic principles of human decency, let alone conservatism, it doesn’t show. He feels foolish because he is foolish. The only proper thing to do, in his case, is to slink away into the night, never to be seen or heard from again.
After all, we aren’t talking about going through a stoplight or telling one of those little white lies that make life so much easier for all of us: As of this writing, over 1,200 American soldiers have been killed, with close to 30,000 wounded—and we don’t even know how many Iraqi casualties there have been, since the Pentagon doesn’t bother to keep count.
On the liberal left, Kenneth Pollack, whose book The Threatening Storm did so much to convince the Kerry-Kennedy crowd to vote for going to war, had this to say in a recent interview with the New York Times:
Q: In your new book, “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America,” you seem to have abandoned your hawkish stance. Your last one, “The Threatening Storm,” helped persuade many reluctant Democratic policy makers to support the invasion of Iraq.
Pollack: I made a mistake based on faulty intelligence. Of course, I feel guilty about it. I feel awful.
Q: It’s nice to hear at least one American say that he’s sorry.
Pollack: I’m sorry; I’m sorry!
Is “I’m sorry” good enough? Isn’t a more onerous penance required, considering the horrific consequences of the policy Pollack and his confreres pushed on the public? How about a moratorium on the pontifications of these people, who have yet to reflect on the fatal flaw in their vision that does not allow them to see that they visited so much unnecessary pain and suffering on the world? Fresh from giving his last bit of disastrous advice, Mr. Pollack is out with yet another book—though the embers from the fire he helped start last time have yet to cool. Perhaps he ought to take a sabbatical or even consider retiring from full-time punditry, as William F. Buckley, Jr.—another repentant warmonger—did. In his last article before handing National Review over to the David Frum/Jonah Goldberg/Rich Lowry Axis of Neocon Evil, the founder of that once readable journal declared:
With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.
Having supported the biggest foreign-policy blunder since the U.S. entry into World War I, and having played an instrumental part in selling out the true conservative cause of smaller government and the preservation of the Permanent Things to a coven of intellectual witch doctors and foreign agents, Buckley did the only decent thing: He folded up his tent and retired from public life, falling on his sword—albeit only metaphorically.
Buckley, at least, has some sense of when to shut up: Not David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, however, who now says that America entered Iraq with “a childish fantasy” and is now “a shell-shocked hegemon.” Yes, but wasn’t Brooks one of the most childish of the fantasizers? Wasn’t it he and his neoconservative brethren who led us into this battle—in the name of spreading Democracy from Beirut to Bangladesh? I wonder if he has anything to say to the wife or mother of a young soldier who has just returned from Iraq without the use of his limbs—or without any limbs at all. What will these people say to the ghosts of the war dead, the casualties of their ideological delusions and miscalculations?
Somehow, “I’m sorry” seems woefully inadequate.
In most cases, the expression of these second thoughts is but an opportunity for excuse-making. Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International (a big booster of the war), began to consider the utter defeat of the idea that the Middle East could or should be “transformed” into Iowa with falafels: “All the big mistakes were made in the first three or four months, when the administration didn’t send in enough troops and spurned international cooperation,” Mr. Zakaria said.
But the neoconservatives were cheering them on. Now that it’s going south, they’re simply blowing with the wind. In retrospect, the critics I have a lot of respect for are the realist conservatives who said long before the war that you’re opening up a hornet’s nest and the costs will outweigh the benefits.
The feeling is not mutual. Respect is what these repentant hawks deserve least of all. What they really require is a public horsewhipping. Zakaria is content to shift the blame for this unfolding disaster to the administration’s methods, instead of laying it on the lunatic idea that we ought to invade and occupy a sovereign nation that had never attacked us. This is typical of the arrogance and hubris that afflicts our elites. These people are so divorced from reality that they do not even know what moral monsters they are.
Slate has a section of its website devoted exclusively to the subject of repentant liberal hawks such as Pollack, Paul Berman, and Thomas Friedman, raking themselves over the coals of their own fiery war rhetoric, trying to determine how and why they went wrong: Most conclude that, if only the Bush administration had done it their way . . .
The most egregious example of postwar penitence has got to be that of the New Republic. Howard Kurtz, writing about the magazine’s second thoughts on the war, averred that the editors “broke with liberal orthodoxy by strongly supporting President Bush’s war with Iraq.” (That was surely not a break with the long-standing tradition of the New Republic, which was founded in the early part of the last century as a vehicle for bloodthirsty liberals who wanted to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I.) TNR acknowledged error without admitting the need to repent: “We feel regret, but no shame. . . . Our strategic rationale for war has collapsed,” confesses an editorial “hammered out after a contentious, 3 1/2-hour editors’ meeting,” according to Kurtz. “I wanted the editorial to be honest not just about the war and other people’s mistakes but our mistakes,” editor Peter Beinart says. “We felt we had a responsibility to look in the mirror.”
Yet the New Republic was calling for war with Iraq long before Saddam’s legendary “weapons of mass destruction” started making headlines. For them to come out and declare that they “feel regret, but no shame” is hardly surprising, because the concept of shame presupposes some kind of moral framework, which, in the case of TNR, has always been lacking. Their foreign-policy stance in recent years has involved a rather singular moral calculus: “Is it good for Israel?” Rather than acknowledge that, Beinart merely admits to his own shamelessness.
The shameless character of our left-neocons is matched by their mirror images on the right: In an editorial published in National Review, a magazine that supported the war with frenzied enthusiasm, the editors scolded the Bush administration for its “underestimation . . . of the difficulty of implanting democracy in alien soil.” This, from a magazine that has turned itself into the Pravda of neo-Wilsonian internationalism, where writers Michael Ledeen and Victor Davis Hanson have ceaselessly agitated to expand the war, calling for the overthrow of Arab regimes throughout the entire region.
This leads me to wonder: Does anyone really learn from experience?
Some people do: Many of the pro-war liberals of the World War I era, such as John T. Flynn, became the anti-interventionist Old Rightists of the period leading up to the second great catastrophe of modern times, just as many who supported an always impossible “victory” over the Vietcong during the Cold War now see the utter futility—and outright immorality—of a very similar war in the killing fields of Iraq.
Others, however, learn nothing, forgive nothing, and admit nothing. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, has no second thoughts—no more than a wolf feels any remorse in devouring its prey. “Yes, we still support the war, but wish the postwar had been fought better and we’ve been critical of the administration,” he says, even as it becomes clear that Iraq is simply Beirut, circa 1983, writ large. “We have no second thoughts about the justice and necessity of the war.”
Spoken like a true killer.