It’s the default position of liberals to lay the blame for this apocalyptic legacy—a failing Iraq, unchecked international jihadism, a neo-isolationist America—on the Bushies, who deployed cooked evidence and outright lies to sell the country on the war and then executed their own strategy with breathtaking recklessness and incompetence. The Iraq War cheerleaders on the right, whether think-tank-funded neocon armchair generals or flag-pin-bearing bloviators at Fox News, are also easily identifiable culprits in this story. So are those reporters and editors in the mainstream press who at best failed to vet and at worst jingoistically inflated Bush-administration propaganda about Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
What tends to be swept under history’s rug is the leading role that the liberal Establishment played in this calamity. A majority of Senate Democrats voted to authorize the war, including the presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and John Edwards. Most of the liberal pundits and public intellectuals who might have challenged the rationale for the invasion enlisted in the stampede instead, giving the politicians cover. They are the target of Michael Hastings’s rude little book.
For those who don’t instantly recognize the principal characters in this roman à clef, a minute of Googling will decode it. Sometimes Hastings tosses in actual names, including his own, the 22-year-old protagonist bouncing among the higher-ups succumbing to war fever in their lofty midtown-Manhattan offices. The titular magazine is a relic from a time capsule—when newsweeklies had millions of subscribers and covers that could move markets and the world. But if print newsmagazines have been slouching toward extinction ever since, the culture Hastings captures—like some of the specific Iraq enablers he skewers—is alive and well. The slippery prewar bellicosity at The Magazine (one cover is ingeniously headlined “The Case for War?”) seems as contemporary as ever, as does the disingenuous backpedaling once public opinion starts to go south (another cover: “How They Got It Wrong [And What They Can Do to Make It Right]”). The herd mentality, situational ethics, and fear of standing up to authority depicted in The Last Magazine survive today on op-ed pages, at panels where elite thinkers meet in the mountains of Aspen and Davos, on thumb-sucking talk shows of lofty policy pretensions, and, yes, sometimes in magazines. It’s a bubble where career advancement, as measured through television ubiquity and the sales of books pandering to received middlebrow opinion, matters more than actual thought or intellectual integrity. When the “Michael Hastings” of Hastings’s novel reads a new book by one of the two senior editors competing to be The Magazine’s new editor-in-chief, he doesn’t expect to learn what his boss is really thinking, only what the boss has “pretended to think” to advance his personal brand.
In a post he wrote for the now-defunct site True/Slant in 2009 (around the time he was finishing his draft of The Last Magazine), Hastings anticipated his novel’s themes. “Supporting the Iraq War was the smart career move, the savvy play,” he wrote, adding that he witnessed “this career pressure at work, first-hand” when, between the summer of 2002 and the start of the invasion in March 2003, “the views of a number of big names at Newsweek flipped like light switches.” Why did they? A big incentive, he wrote, “was the pressure to stay relevant. Being for the war was seen as the cutting edge of thinking. If you were against the war, you were marked as some kind of left-wing throwback, or an isolationist, someone who didn’t get it.” And, as Hastings marveled in 2009, “the consequences for getting it wrong” were “zip.” Indeed, many of those who got it wrong, in his estimation, had become more successful after the war spun out of control. Some have just slunk away from the ruins of the fiasco they supported as if they bear no culpability or responsibility for the wreckage. Now and then, they write lovely pieces thanking those Americans who fought the war for their service.
A month before the invasion in 2003, Bill Keller, then a Times op-ed columnist, took a census of the “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club” he unexpectedly found himself in. It was a large group that included “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.” Contrary to Hastings’s harsh view of their motivations, the liberal hawks all claimed their stands were based on the merits of the case. They believed that Saddam, indisputably a mass murderer of his own people, could be taken out in a surgical military action (“rapid, accurate and dazzling,” in Christopher Hitchens’s formulation). Some believed, as the Bush administration hectored, that Iraq’s arsenal was a ticking time bomb threatening America. Paul Berman imagined that an invasion might “foment a liberal revolution in the Middle East.” Thomas Friedman argued that “America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world” in addition to Afghanistan to puncture the “terrorism bubble” and tilt the region “onto a democratizing track.”