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Iraq Everlasting

When these rationales started to collapse, most (though not all) of the original liberal hawks started to scatter. Slate smartly convened periodic online symposia in which its nearly united caucus for war could publicly reconsider. But as the blogger Matthew Yglesias would write at ThinkProgress in 2010, it remained puzzling why the war’s liberal supporters were “so slow to turn against it.” Yglesias had been a mere college student when he supported the invasion, but he was still wise enough to figure out that things were going “badly amiss” when Bush and Tony Blair “pulled the plug on the inspections process” and when, a few months later, it became clear that “there was no scary WMD program and also that there was no real plan for what to do.” Yet, as he wrote, it took “until 2005–2006 for ‘this was a mistake’ to become a conventional view even though no really important new information became available during the interim.”

There were exceptions to this groupthink, of course. Among the boldest was the Slate military-affairs columnist Fred Kaplan, who joined his colleagues in coming down in favor of the Iraq War after hearing Colin Powell’s presentation on Saddam’s alleged WMD before the United Nations Security Council on February 5, 2003. Kaplan pulled back a mere month later—two weeks before the invasion began—after reading a piece by another liberal hawk, George Packer, in the Times Magazine, reporting that at a meeting with Iraqi exiles, Bush revealed his ignorance of the Sunni-Shia division in the country he intended to remake. “I knew immediately they were going to fuck it up,” Kaplan recalled recently. (Packer stayed the course until 2005.) A few other prominent liberal writers—a short list led by Danner, James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, John Judis, and Paul Krugman—opposed the war from the start, for a variety of prescient reasons. Why did so many more, seeing the same evidence that the skeptics did, get it wrong?

The liberal hawks’ explanations are fairly similar: They were bamboozled by the WMD “evidence.” They never imagined that the Bush administration would have gone to war with no plan for the morning after Saddam’s fall. Some pinned the blame on the Brookings Institution fellow Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, whose book The Threatening Storm, a compendium of errant intelligence, was the go-to case for war. (It is now out of print.) By 2004, the libertarian magazine Reason was seeing a “neat arrangement of responsibility by the liberal hawks: all the blame falls on the president, none on themselves.” Or, as the late British historian Tony Judt put it two years later, most liberal hawks (“Bush’s useful idiots,” he labeled them) “focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution.”

What made some of the liberal hawks offensive was their swaggering assumption of moral (and intellectual) superiority to those who challenged their thinking. Many of them slurred the present and former United Nations weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, who contradicted the Dick Cheney–Judith Miller case for Saddam’s WMD. Hitchens belittled war opponents as leftist “masochists.” Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, accused the war’s critics of “intellectual incoherence” and “abject pacifism.” Dan Savage labeled them “squish-brains,” and Jacob Weisberg, then editor of Slate, wrote that Democratic war critics failed “to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously.” To their credit, some of these hawks, however tardily, owned up fully to their mistakes and excesses. “I was wrong,” wrote Beinart—simple words that eluded so many others. Andrew Sullivan, who had impugned the patriotism of those who disagreed with his post-9/11 effusions, became a tireless writer on the crimes revealed at Abu Ghraib and more recently went so far as to publish an e-book titled I Was Wrong containing almost his entire hawkish output. He admitted that he had become “enamored” of his own morality, and likened his support for the war to that of “a teenage girl supporting the Jonas Brothers.” Dan Savage, in his inimitable way, said in 2013, “I was not just wrong. I was an asshole about it, and I was an asshole to the people who were right.” After Iraq, he stopped writing about foreign affairs altogether.

A few liberal hawks have also conceded Hastings’s point—that they went along with the pack for reasons that may not have been entirely based on an independent, empirical weighing of the case for war. “The first thing I hope I’ve learned from this experience of being wrong about Iraq,” Weisberg wrote in 2008, “is to be less trusting of expert opinion and received wisdom.” Les Gelb, the longtime foreign-policy hand and commentator, said with notable candor that his “initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the ­foreign-policy community, namely the disposition and incentive to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.” Bill Keller wrote that it was “surely relevant” that his I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk cohort was “exclusively a boys’ club,” and observed that Samantha Power, the writer who had written more eloquently on the case for American humanitarian interventions than anyone, had chosen not to join it. In his lengthy mea culpa, Keller’s most telling self-observation may be that he had wanted “to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.” After all, using one’s perch to try to slow down a precipitous rush to war could hardly qualify as action in the feverish, testosterone-thick atmosphere of post-9/11 America.