Bill Keller: Testosterone and a Liberalism-Inferiority Complex Led Me to Support the Iraq War


Eight years, an estimated 100,000 Iraqi deaths, and 40,000-plus American casualties after Bill Keller banged his felt-tipped mallet on President George Bush's war drum, the crotchety former executive editor of the New York Times has explained his decision. Keller's "My Unfinished 9/11 Business"–four whole pages of equivocation and reluctant apologies–is meaty. And by meaty, I mean the piece is about Bill Keller's penis.

Here is Keller explaining how he did not feel manly enough to keep his daughter safe in a post-9/11 world:

My prudent punditry soon felt inadequate. I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism.

Here is Keller listing the roster for his boys club of "skeptics"-turned-hawks, who could not possibly all have been wrong, even if the NYT's bad reporting informed their opinions:

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.)

Here is Keller describing how one year after the invasion, one of the boys in his boys club invited all the other boys to talk about whether or not they were right:

In 2004, a year after the invasion, and again in 2008, Jacob Weisberg, editor of the online magazine Slate and a charter member of my I-Can't-Believe club, invited liberal hawks to second-guess their support for the war. The responses ranged from remorse to self-vindication, with lots of tortured doubt and defensiveness in between. But I held my tongue. By that time I had moved from the Op-Ed page into a job — executive editor — in which I was obliged to keep my opinions to myself lest they be mistaken for the newspaper's agenda or influence our coverage.

Here is Keller saying that Iraq presented an opportunity to restore America's virility:  

Others brought to this moment the lessons of Bosnia, where an American-led alliance had stopped the murderous Serbs and somewhat erased the residue of American impotence left by Ho Chi Minh and "Black Hawk Down."

Here is Keller saying that the one person he remembers objecting to Iraq was a woman, and that he did not listen to her:

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.

Here is Keller saying that he should have been more skeptical of Bush because the president did not display the paternalism necessary for successful nation-building:

And if we were paying closer attention, as we should have been, 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.

Here is Keller explaining why the boys club could not be swayed by evidence that suggested the case for invading Iraq was not actually a slam dunk, even after military journalist Fred Kaplan departed their ranks:

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.

And here is Keller listing what he could have done differently:

Whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call. I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly, but I could see that there was no clear plan for — and at the highest levels, a shameful smugness about — what came after the invasion. I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn't fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein's capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context "a clear and present danger." But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.

And there you have it: Bill Keller beat Bush's drum not with a mallet, but an erudite wang. 

Further reading: Matt Welch on Paul Berman's wars; Tim Cavanaugh on "the twilight of the liberal hawks."