Officially out as the executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller transitions back into the world of full-time opinion writing today with nearly 3,500 words on the invasion of Iraq and his own role in what he dubs 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’s not until three-quarters of the way through the essay that Keller calls Operation Iraqi Freedom “a monumental blunder,” and that admission is embedded within paragraph after paragraph of tortured justification. The previous line: “The world is well rid of Saddam Hussein.” The next line: “Whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call.” And so on.
Keller writes the piece beginning with the attacks of September 11, when “the suddenly apparent menace of the world awakened a bellicose surge of mission and made hawks of many — including me — who had a lifelong wariness of the warrior reflex.” He writes of the “mounting protective instinct” he felt as the birth of his second daughter approached, and later, of being “drugged by testosterone.” The reluctant hawks — or as Tony Judt called them, “Bush’s Useful Idiots” — was “a boys’ club,” Keller writes.
Keller eventually rattles off the consequences so far: more than 100,000 dead, billions of dollars, etc., but soon after recalls that in the lead-up to the war he just “wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.” The soul searching is in there, too, but it’s smothered by rationalization and omissions (Judith Miller does not appear), such as the claim that the Times has atoned for its Iraq sins:
Keller’s column is titled “My Unfinished 9/11 Business,” but the conclusions here about the “costly wisdom of Iraq” are dragged down by caveats. The “I was wrong, but ” school of apology rarely wins any new friends.