It's Mea Culpa Time!


Five years have passed and Slate asks a handful of "liberal hawks" how they "got it wrong." Josef Joffe, editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, says it's a loaded question, briefly revisits the "dark years" after the invasion, says the tide has turned post-surge, and acknowledges that the invasion tipped the regional power balance towards Iran:

The lesson is stark: If you don't will the means, don't will the end. To this Kantianism, let us add pure homily: Look before you leap. The tragedy of American power in the Middle East, the most critical arena of world politics, is that the United States ended up working as the handmaiden of Iranian ambitions.

By destroying Saddam's armies, the United States flattened the strongest bulwark against Iranian expansion. By empowering the Shiites, it opened the way to an ideological alliance between Najaf and Qum, the two centers of the faith on either side of the Iraq-Iran border. And by entangling itself in an open-ended war in Iraq, the United States squandered precisely those military assets that would have kept Iran in awe. Would the Ahmadinejad regime grasp so boldly for nuclear weapons if U.S. power and credibility were still intact?

Probably not. Recall the vindication the administration felt when, after the invasion, a nervous Libya relinquished its WMD program to Britain and the United States, as Christopher Hitchens mentions in his contribution to the debate. But Joffe has a point; the nuke issue is surely a two-way street. Obviously, a perceived military success terrifies regional dictators, a perceived failure emboldens them.

The brave Iraqi exile Kenan Makiya, instrumental in swaying liberals like George Packer and Paul Berman to support the war, wonders why, after writing a book like The Republic of Fear, he didn't consider the brutalizing effects of Ba'athist dictatorship on the people of Iraq:

But my biggest political sin is that in spite of nearly a quarter of a century of writing about the abuses of the Baath Party, I, and more generally the whole community of Iraqi exiles, grossly underestimated the consequences on a society of 30 years of extreme dictatorship. Iraqis were, it is true, liberated by the U.S. action in 2003; they were not defeated as the German and Japanese peoples had been in 1945. A regime was removed and a people liberated overnight, but it was a people that did not understand what had happened to it or why. Iraqis emerged into the light of day in a daze, having been in a prison or a giant concentration camp, cut off from the rest of the world to a degree that is difficult to imagine if you have not lived among them.

Richard Cohen says he knew that the Bush administration was full of it (of course he did), but he was guided by a utopianism, one informed by having "spent time in the region." He knew, for instance…

"…that Saddam was unconnected to Osama Bin Laden, that Iraqi intelligence had not met with Mohammed Atta in Prague, and that while Iraq once had a nuclear weapons program, it no longer did. That left chemical and biological weapons, and neither represented much of a threat. Gas had been around since Ypres (1915), and biological devices were impractical as weapons of mass destruction, although they remained profoundly scary. So, the only justification left was, really, what the neocons had started with: a war to reorder the Middle East. This had a certain appeal, since the region was unstable, undemocratic, repressive, and downright dangerous. Can it be a coincidence that so many of the so-called liberal hawks had spent time in the region? When it came to getting it right on Iraq, ignorance may indeed have been bliss."

So to be "right" about the war in Iraq, it was important to know very little about the Middle East?

And, as expected, Hitchens hasn't budged at all.