It's been several days since I finally got around to reading former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller's hymn of self-justification – I mean, sober and self-reflective mea culpa – for his early, eager support of the Iraq war, and I'm still smoldering, still spewing small mushroom clouds of rage from my ears.
There are lots of reasons to steam, many spelled out in Matthew Taylor's fine post on this site, others spelled out in Steve Walt's short but eviscerating Foreign Policy knife jab. But what really gets me, zaps me like a mess of live wires, is the fact that over the course of more than 3400 words Keller can’t seem to find the keys on his computer to spell out the words, “I am sorry.” He offers no apology, no forgive me, no soul-searching, just nine oddly detached words issued in the final, limping throes of the piece: “President Bush got it wrong. And so did I.”
And so did I?
This is supposed to be the climax of Keller’s sober reflection, the pay-off for nearly a decade of forced silence (after the months and months of zealous cheer-leading), but all we get is a man dodging his own confession. There is no hint of sadness, no suggestion of repentance, no long grey beard or glittering eye. Keller is no ancient mariner leaking guilt everywhere, though far more than the albatross has been killed. Indeed, more than 100,000 Iraqis are dead and nearly 4500 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives. A country lies in chaos and ruins. The US economy is in tatters yet somehow has had to keep feeding the $3 trillion war beast. Surely all this deserves more than George-W.-Bush-was-wrong-and-oh-yeah-me-too? But that’s all we get, a feint, along with a cascade of fine-phrased excuses.
These excuses – and really, the piece is, in some ways, one large excuse – are hugely revealing. In addition to their general lameness and inadequacy, they go a long way towards suggesting why Keller doesn’t get around to an apology, why he might not even see the need for one. And the reason is that after all this time, Keller seems to believe – or his excuses suggest that he believes – that his big mistake in supporting the war was one of emotion and credulity, not morality. It was, in other words, an honest mistake, a failure of attention and skepticism, not a failure of character or conscience. Anyone could have made it, lots of good people did.
Consider one of Keller’s first excuses, what I call his Daddy Defense, which he offers up just a few paragraphs into the piece. Sounding something like a neo-Gothic horror novelist, he writes, “I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter. 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. By the time of Alice’s birth I had already turned my attention to Iraq…”
It’s all very earnest and sympathetic, very daddy-sweet. And as a newish parent myself, I get the over-protective impulse, the intensity of post-natal emotion, the vertigo of sudden responsibility for a new life. But how all these instincts add up to wanting to invade Iraq makes about as much sense to me as the Twinkie defense. Moreover, if for some unfathomable reason they do add up, then we have much, much bigger problems since we clearly have to ask ourselves whether new fathers, addled by hormones and emotion, can be trusted with any responsibility greater than changing a dirty diaper. Certainly they shouldn’t be allowed to write opinion pieces for major newspapers.
As for the rest of Keller’s excuses, they are equally pat and no more convincing. There’s the “all the cool kids were doing it” excuse – if Fareed Zakaria, George Packer, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Christopher Hitchens, among other “liberal hawks” can be considered cool – as well as Keller’s suggestion that he and his fellow cool-kid hawks were simply too “drugged” by testosterone and high on morality, their own, to maintain their powers of skepticism and discernment. In other words, his conscience and his gonads made him do it.
Still, enraging as these excuses are, none of them come close to matching the self-justificatory blather of Keller’s most audacious excuse of all, his claim that that he cheered the war because he didn’t know, couldn’t have known, that it would turn out to be an epic, bloody WMD-free disaster. As he writes:
We forget how broad the consensus was that Hussein was hiding the kind of weapons that could rain holocaust on a neighbor or be delivered to America by proxy. He had recently possessed chemical weapons (he used them against the Kurds), and it was only a few years since we had discovered he had an active ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Inspectors who combed the country after the first gulf war discovered a nuclear program far more advanced than our intelligence agencies had believed; so it is understandable that the next time around the analysts erred on the side of believing the worst.
We now know that the consensus was wrong, and that it was built in part on intelligence that our analysts had good reason to believe was cooked. Should we — those of us without security clearances — have known it in 2003?
Well, actually, yes, they should have known or at least been very, very skeptical. During the months leading up to the war, I was just a lowly graduate student with little more than a Columbia University ID, certainly not any special security clearance, and yet I knew – knew that we were being played, knew that there were grave reasons to doubt the WMD hype. My husband also knew as did my friends, my family members, and the millions of people, both in this country and beyond, who marched against the war in those frightening, frigid weeks leading up to it. (I think I'm still thawing from the February 15, 2003, rally when 300,000 to 400,000 of us braved hour upon hour of arctic chill to register our dissent and maybe, somehow, maybe prevent the war.) We weren’t experts or hot-shot national security writers; we had simply followed the story as reported by a number of honest, incredulous journalists who had, in turn, followed the story as told to them by a number of honest, incredulous intelligence analysts and weapons inspectors.
These journalists were not legion, it’s true, but they were determined and present and included the impressive likes of Pulitzer Prize winning AP journalist Charles Hanley, Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Pincus, gum-shoe Knight Ridder duo Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, and investigative god Seymour Hersh (chiming in a little late but nonetheless powerfully). The progressive press also performed heroically, from scribes at The Nation to incipient bloggers to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, who began tracking the Bush crowd’s sinister Iraq intentions as early as October 2001 (the first warning segment was dated October 25th and titled, “Bush Administration Raises Prospect of Attack On Iraq As Federal Officials Point to Homefront As Source of Anthrax”).
Keller all but overlooks these fellow tradesmen in his essay. The only ones he bothers to mention are Strobel and Landay, who barely garner a phrase between em-dashes, and he makes absolutely no mention of intelligence experts and weapons inspectors like Scott Ritter and Mohammed El-Baradei who were desperately shouting counter-evidence to anyone who would listen. Perhaps it’s because their existence undermines his defense. Or perhaps, after all this time, he still fails to recognize them, still fails to hear their warnings. How else to explain the odd moment, halfway through the piece, where he refers to the “elusive” weapons of mass destruction? Elusive? Is Keller trying to be clever? How about, non-existent?
But no, no. Eight-and-a-half years after the United States invaded Iraq, and more than eight years after Keller ascended to the post of executive editor of the paper of record – a position, I suspect, that would not have been open to him if he’d opposed the war – there are only two things that remain truly elusive, at least in Keller’s essay: his wisdom and his remorse.