Bill Keller still doesn’t know now what we all knew then…

on 16 Comments

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.

About Lizzy Ratner

Lizzy Ratner is a journalist in New York City. She is a co-editor with Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss of The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict.

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16 Responses

  1. David Samel
    September 22, 2011, 11:36 am

    Great essay, Lizzy. The efforts of “serious journalists” like Keller to discredit and dismiss extremist/fringe/unserious people who actually get things right the first time continues unabated. Even now, many who concede error claim it was foolish of the US to try to bring democracy to people who were not ready for it, not that it was naked military aggression that would foreseeably take the lives of many times the number of people who dies on 9/11. Even your cautious, low-end estimate of 100,000 Iraqi dead dwarfs the number of 9/11 victims.

    Like you, I vividly recall the intelligent voices who labored tirelessly to publicize the truth, who were ignored and marginalized by the Times et al. In fact, I recall listening to Amy Goodman’s guests doing an immediate analysis of Colin Powell’s infamous UN speech in Feb. 2003, expertly picking it apart. The information was there for any who cared to consider it rather than run with the herd toward disaster and death for another people.

    It also reminds me of the Vietnam War, where it is generally acknowledged that terrible mistakes were made, Moral errors in slaughtering millions of people who were trying to determine their own destiny free from Western control? Of course not. There were only mistakes in judgment, in believing that we could help people who were beyond our help, believing we could win a war with one hand tied behind our back (which hand was that – nukes?). Our intentions were most honorable, as always.

    No one has to tell Bill Keller that his mea culpa cannot go too far if he wants to remain a “respected voice.” Everybody knows the unwritten rules. His Daddy defense, however, is lame to the point of embarrassing, isn’t it?

  2. Kathleen
    September 22, 2011, 11:44 am

    Great post Lizzy

    this is the repeated line and lie that drives me insane

    “The question is really two questions: Knowing what we know now, with the glorious advantage of hindsight, was it a mistake to invade and occupy Iraq? And knowing what we knew then, were we wrong to support the war?”

    Jesus Mary and Joseph help us. At the time of 9/11 I was a 49 year old soccer mom living here in southeastern Ohio. I could simply turn on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, the Diane Rehm show, go listen to Democracy Now, or Washington Journal and hear opposing views about the endlessly repeated lies being told by the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I heard former IAEA weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Brzyzinski, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, Blix, former President Jimmy Carter, General Zinni and many more question the validity of the false intelligence coming out of the Pentagons Office of Special Plans. I read Jonathon Landays articles questioning the validity of the intelligence. I read investigative reporter Jason Vest article in the Nation, about just who was busy creating, cherry picking and dessminating the falwe WMD intelligence Seymour Hersh questioned. When IAEA head El Baradei came out in early March of 2003 and said the Niger Documents were forgeries I thought surely the race to invade Iraq would stop.

    When Senator Durbin (who was on the intelligence committee) and 20 some other honorable Senators voted against the Iraq war resolution in the fall of 2002. I thought ok some light bulbs are being turned on

    Christ all mighty I was a soccer mom in south eastern Ohio at the time and I could access this information seriously questioning the validity of the intelligence from solid and verifiable sources.

    Now granted when you would turn on the evening news CNN, MSNBC, etc would allow Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Kristol and other selling the linking of 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq with little to no challenges from host of these shows….the majority of American people bought it. They expect the news to get close to the truth. But our MSM was generally complicit in selling that war.

    Millions of us marched, petitioned our Reps, were arrested for civil disobedience before the invasion based on the serious questions around the WMD “pack of lies” Did Keller and his newspaper interview my friends who lost their daughter who was an airline stewardess on the United Flight and who led the anti invasion march in New York in early Feb of 2003? The 9/11 families against the invasion of Iraq? Did Keller and his bloody paper come out on the streets to see and really cover who were at those marches right in his back yard? The WWII, Korean, Vietnam and Desert Storm Vets who were marching against the invasion? Very little. Keller and Judy Miller knew exactly what they were doing. They were instrumental

    Keller is a flimsy liar. He was an integral part of the war criminals who sold the American people that immoral and illegal invasion. He allowed Judy “I was fucking right” Miller to spew her WMD lies over and over again in that bloody paper. The New York Times has the blood of the Iraqi people and American soldiers dripping down its cover forever. When I think of Cheney, Wolfowitz Feith, Condi “mushroom cloud” Rice and all of the others like Keller, Miller, Kenneth Pollack (US gov 1 in the Aipac investigation) who were instrumental in selling that unnecessary war I pray that there is a hell and that the devil is building a new wing for these war criminals souls.

  3. James North
    September 22, 2011, 12:20 pm

    Terrific post, Lizzy. Keller’s one moment of honesty was when he reluctantly pointed out that all the liberal hawks were men.
    One of your most powerful points is where you point out that “everybody wasn’t doing it,” that plenty of experts and non-experts were skeptical before the war started.
    If a CEO made this kind of mistake, he would be fired. At the very least, the liberal hawks should be barred from commenting on Mideast policy, ever again.

  4. seafoid
    September 22, 2011, 12:32 pm

    A Reporter at Large
    The Great Terror
    In northern Iraq, there is new evidence of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal war on the Kurds—and of his possible ties to Al Qaeda.
    by Jeffrey Goldberg March 25, 2002

  5. Shunra
    September 22, 2011, 12:48 pm

    Wait, is that vile excuse for a human being blaming the Iraq war on his then-infant daughter?

    Is that going to stand in a court of law? “Sorry, your honor, I helped lie a nation to war because that little baby girl _made me do it_”?

    I do declare, that beats the whole discredited only-following-orders defense.

    • Kathleen
      September 22, 2011, 2:52 pm

      Keller “But when the troops went in, they went with my blessing” You bet they did and your papers false reporting that supported the Bush administrations agenda in Iraq.

      Clearly Keller does not give a rats ass about the enormous amount of death and destruction that has taken place in large part as a direct consequence of the lies sold to the American people in that grey and very very bloody New York Times

    • tree
      September 22, 2011, 3:55 pm

      Yes. Great post in its entirety, Lizzy and this bit of yours made me laugh out loud.

      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.

      Having grown up during the time of questioning whether women could be trusted with important decisions because of “raging hormones”, it was a brilliant twist to see Keller’s lame excuse dissected in such an astute manner.

      Unfortunately, I think our system, rather than being a meritocracy, is tilted towards those who “go along to get along” – and morality, foresight and true self-reflection are attributes that are winnowed out in the selection process for power. Keller is a poster boy for that system.

  6. Mndwss
    September 22, 2011, 1:59 pm

    “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.”

    Holocaust used as as a reason to attack Hitler and protect the Ministry of Oil.

    How broad is the consensus today that the next Hitler is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

    Dr Dahlia Wasfi Speaks Out Against WAR FOR OIL:


    Where is Wasfi today? Why is she silent?

  7. DICKERSON3870
    September 22, 2011, 2:31 pm

    RE: “He [Keller] 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.’ “ ~ Lizzie Ratner

    MY COMMENT: This is a nice example of one of the most common defense mechanisms, that of rationalization. Keller is saying he got it wrong, but it’s no biggie because his excuse/rationalization /justification is that President Bush also got it wrong. And Bush (unlike Keller) had the NSA, CIA, Pentagon and all of the other resources of the government at his beck and call.
    • Rationalization is the cognitive reframing of ones perceptions to protect the ego in the face of changing realities. Thus, the promotion one wished fervently for and didn’t get becomes “a dead end job for brown nosers and yes men”.
    • Rationalization – Subconscious justifications, excuses or reasonings given to make a behavior seem logical — “A student fails the final he didn’t study for and says… “I couldn’t have passed it anyway – that teacher has it in for me.”
    Rationalization is included at the beginning of any list of defense mechanisms because it’s so frequently recognized as “being defensive”.
    • Rationalization (making excuses): Where a person convinces him or herself that no wrong was done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses – making excuses.

    SEE: List of Defense Mechanisms –
    SEE: Subconscious Mind: A List of Defense Mechanisms –
    ALSO SEE: Defence mechanism –

    • DICKERSON3870
      September 22, 2011, 2:46 pm

      RE: “Lizzie Ratner” ~ me, above
      CORRECTION: Oops! I meant Lizzy Ratner, of course.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    September 22, 2011, 3:04 pm

    RE: “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…” ~ Lizzy Ratner

    IN OTHER WORDS: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks” were doing it too!

    A VERY, VERY, VERY LATE SUMMER EVENING’S MUSICAL INTERLUDE (brought to you courtesy of the kind, caring folks at Ziocaine™):

    Bill’s got a quick hand.
    He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan.
    He’s got a rolled cigarette, hanging out his mouth he’s a cowboy kid.
    Yeah he found a six shooter gun.
    In his dads closet hidden in a box of fun things, and I don’t even know what.
    But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you…

    …Yeah the slight of my hand is now a quick pull trigger,
    I reason with my cigarette,
    And say your hair’s on fire, you must have lost your wits, yeah…

    …All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you’d better run, better run, outrun my gun.
    All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet…
    – Foster The People

    Foster The People: Pumped Up Kicks (VIDEO, 04:16) –

  9. Chespirito
    September 22, 2011, 3:21 pm

    I’m not given to hyperbole but has there ever been a worse thinkpiece than Keller’s? I defy anyone to name it. Keller’s verbal plotz was rambling, self-serving, morally callous, incoherent, obtuse, oblivious, numbskulled, poorly argued, willfully clueless and above all just so extraordinarily, amazingly dull. How did I finish reading it? How did anyone? No wonder the Times is slowly tanking.

  10. PeaceThroughJustice
    September 22, 2011, 4:23 pm

    In addition to Lizzy and Kathleen’s lists of those offering alternative interpretations of the so-called intelligence, let’s remember that there were also some who were willing to actually mention the elephant in the room, to say that support for Israel was playing a big part in these “intelligence” wars. This was even harder to do in back then than it is today, and so they should be remembered–

    Congressman Jim Moran (“If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq we would not be doing this”)
    Senator Ernest Hollings (“With Iraq no threat, why invade a sovereign country? The answer: President Bush’s policy to secure Israel.”)
    General Anthony Zinni (“the worst kept secret in Washington”)
    Congressman Robert Byrd
    Congressman Ron Paul
    British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook
    British MP Tam Dalyell
    CIA analyst Michael Scheuer
    NSA Director Bobby Ray Inman (“Where Iraq is concerned, our policy has everything to do with Israel’s long-term security.”)
    Ralph Nader, James Bamford, Patrick Buchanan

    All of course were called “antisemitic.” Such views were sufficiently widespread to catch the attention of the Jewish press, who reported on it extensively. But nobody at our newspaper of record reported on it. (Except of course as examples of “antisemitism,” which can not be reported on too much.) Apparently it never occurred to Bill Keller that the campaign for war might have a political dimension.

  11. Rusty Pipes
    September 22, 2011, 5:11 pm

    “President Bush got it wrong. And so did I.”

    A half-step above Bush Pere’s passive-voice admission, “mistakes were made.” More along the lines of “and the small kangaroo said, ‘me, too.'” What should be an embarrassing acknowledgement that, as the country was torn by questions about whether the country should go to war, the function of The Times — our putative fourth estate — was to act as the commander-in-chief’s “yes man.”

  12. RoHa
    September 23, 2011, 12:45 am

    “Daddy Defense”

    On 11 September 2001 my son was one and a half years old. I was in Philadelphia at the time. The anthrax letters were passing through a post office a bit to the north of where I lived.

    I felt no urge to slaughter Afghans.

    Early in 2003, he turned three. I was in Guildford, then, and Bush, Powell, and Blair were making our flesh creep with tales of Saddam Hussein.

    I felt no urge to slaughter Iraqis.

    Am I a bad father?

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