When Michael Hastings was killed in a single-car crash in Los Angeles at age 33 last June, journalism lost a rare specimen of the breed it needs most: a reporter who doesn’t care whom he pisses off. Hastings was the hothead whose 2010 Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General” led to the dismissal of the Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, for the infraction of trash-talking his civilian bosses. Hastings, too, was pilloried after the piece—by his own journalistic peers, in a manner that would prefigure some of the profession’s more recent hostility toward Glenn Greenwald. “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has,” said Lara Logan of CBS News.
We now know that Hastings served both his country and profession with more honor than Logan, who later maimed her own career and 60 Minutes by perpetrating a Benghazi hoax. And his service isn’t done yet. After Hastings died, a former colleague at Newsweek, where he worked as an intern and war correspondent from 2002 to 2008, sent his widow, Elise Jordan, the draft of a novel he had finished just before his 2010 embed with McChrystal. Titled The Last Magazine, it is being published this month on the anniversary of his passing.
We’ll never know how Hastings might have revised this scrappy debut effort or whether it would have led to a career as a novelist. But as a provocative piece of thinly fictionalized nonfiction, it’s a posthumous mission accomplished. The Last Magazine—set at a fictional newsweekly called The Magazine that might as well go by Newsweek—tells the story of the run-up to the Iraq War from a perspective that many of his colleagues would like to forget or suppress: as an embed deep inside the so-called liberal media, much of which cheered on the war with a self-righteous gravity second only to Dick Cheney’s. Hastings’s book is a message in a bottle that has belatedly washed up on shore to force us to remember how we landed where we are now.
Where are we, exactly? As President Obama implicitly reconfirmed in last week’s West Point address calling for a restrained American role abroad, the massive blunder of Iraq remains the nation’s inescapable existential burden two and a half years after our last troops departed. Indeed, the war continues to pile up collateral damage and defeats daily. Without America’s wrong turn into Iraq, perhaps the Taliban would be extinct rather than resurgent in Afghanistan as we head for the exits to meet Obama’s new 2016 pullout deadline. Without the taint of the Iraq debacle, a war deceitfully carried out in the name of 9/11, perhaps ticket sales at the new 9/11 museum would not be moving so slowly that one can imagine them ending up at the half-price booth; perhaps even George W. Bush might have dared to show up for the museum’s opening rather than plead a “scheduling conflict.”
As for Iraq itself, the just-completed election (few photos of purple fingers this time) all but guaranteed a third term for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a mercurial autocrat like the other leaders America sponsored after 9/11, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Under Maliki, Iraq is an ally of Iran, its partner in supporting the criminal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And though Iraq was not a terrorist stronghold when “shock and awe” toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it is today. The Anbar-province city of Fallujah, liberated by American forces in our country’s bloodiest warfare since Vietnam, fell to Al Qaeda earlier this year. As Mark Danner summarized in his ongoing assessment of the war’s origins and legacy for The New York Review of Books, “The Sunni-Shia struggle set in motion by the American invasion of Iraq has become the vortex of a violent political struggle that stretches from South Asia to the Gulf.” Iraq itself has become a one-stop-shopping jihadist laboratory for car bombs, IEDs, and kidnapping scenarios like the one enacted by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Iraq’s legacy in America goes well beyond the steep toll of casualties, injuries, and billions wasted on corruption and folly. Of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half have physical or mental-health problems and give the government low marks for meeting their needs, according to a Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in March. Barely a third of the public—and only 44 percent of post-9/11 service members—believes the Iraq War was worth fighting, according to CBS News and Post-Kaiser polls. Such is the bipartisan backlash to both post-9/11 wars that a Pew survey last fall found that 52 percent of Americans want their country to “mind its own business internationally”—a record high in the poll’s five-decade history.
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.”
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.
Some liberal hawks—editorialists and op-ed columnists at the Washington Post, most conspicuously—never recanted. Others conceded their mistakes with so many caveats, so much blame-shifting, or in such soft whispers that it hardly mattered. They just kept marching on as if it were all blood under the bridge. Even as Iraq tumbled into chaos, the “only people qualified to speak on the matter,” Tony Judt marveled in 2006, were “those who got it wrong initially.” That’s largely the case with foreign affairs today. And, as Krugman wrote on the tenth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, so few lessons have been learned from the debacle that an “exaggerated and inappropriate reverence for authority” now infects so-called serious debate on domestic policy, too. The apocalyptic debt crisis constantly trumpeted by Washington’s bipartisan Establishment for the past several years has proved as illusory as Saddam’s phantom nuclear warheads.
“We live in a world the Iraq War has made,” Danner wrote last December. For the time being, we are defending ourselves against that reality with denial. The public doesn’t want to hear more about the war from anyone, period. That the latest round of Department of Veterans Affairs scandals arrived as a shock to much of Congress, the news media, and the populace shows just how deaf we’ve been even to the longtime complaints of our wounded warriors. All of Hollywood’s serious 9/11-Iraq-Afghanistan movies except one have struggled to find audiences, with The Hurt Locker proving to be the lowest-grossing Best Picture Oscar winner in movie history. (The one hit has been Zero Dark Thirty, which told of our sole clear-cut victory, the killing of Osama bin Laden.) When foreign-policy debate sporadically erupts on the campaign trail or in Washington—whether over Libya, Syria, Egypt, or Russia—the public tunes it out.
That debate, if it can even be labeled as such, is paralyzed at its core by the specter of Iraq. In both political parties, the talking points rarely get beyond the question of whether Barack Obama is enough of an Alpha Dog in his saber-rattling rhetoric and actions—an empty exercise in intellectual vamping given that the country wouldn’t support the hawks’ inchoate prescriptions for Putin-esque action by an American president even if Obama signed on to them. The Vietnam syndrome, supposedly buried after the first Gulf war, is back. When the same liberal hawks who sped us into Iraq call for intervention in Syria, the public shrugs them off just as it does the discredited Bush-Cheney and neocon claques. Little short of another attack on America will rouse the citizenry to enlist in any battle that cannot be waged with drones. But the potential consequences of the public’s disengagement from the global arena extend well beyond matters of war and peace. At a time of seismic change, the last thing America needs to do is “mind its own business internationally.”
Over the long term, there may well be a reckoning: Should the aftershocks set off by the Iraq invasion continue to unravel the world, or a large chunk of it, history will look back at the liberal and conservative hawks alike as having flunked the biggest judgment call of their time. They will be seen not just as counterparts to the bipartisan promoters of the Vietnam quagmire but as frivolous sleepwalkers akin to those who a century ago greased the skids for the catastrophe of World War I.
Over the short term, the domestic political fallout of this failure is still very much with us. Obama’s West Point speech was regarded by many as a riposte to the lengthy recent cri de coeur from the foreign-policy analyst Robert Kagan in The New Republic warning of dire consequences should a war-weary America continue to retreat from the world now as it did in the post–World War I 1920s. But even if Kagan’s fears are justified, he is oblivious to how flawed a messenger he is, as a major proponent of the Iraq War. And he underestimates how hard it will be to mobilize the country to mount any kind of military horse again after the disaster he did so much to cheer on.
Americans may have soured on President Obama since 2008, but they still do agree with him on this point, at least: Iraq was a “dumb war.” That distinction is not the least of the reasons they chose him over Hillary Clinton and John McCain. What both the liberal and conservative elites fail to appreciate as they express continued bafflement over the unexpected rise of a foreign-policy renegade like Rand Paul is that he shares this distinction with the president. Like Obama, he may wield it against his hawkish presidential-primary opponents, and, should it come to that, against Clinton as well. The ironies in this are both so wicked and profound, and so rooted in the epic liberal failure exhumed in The Last Magazine, that it’s all the more tragic that Michael Hastings won’t be here to hold everyone to account.