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‘We overstepped in that case’ — David Brooks offers another empty apology for supporting Iraq war

On Charlie Rose in November, David Brooks tried to explain away the Iraq war he had supported, saying it hadn’t worked out:

Iraq was Iraq, and it didn’t work out. But at least it was a belief in essential progress – that history is not just an endless war of all against all, but a common march toward a more common future.

Last Thursday Brooks tried again, in a debate in New York on the proposition, Liberals hold the moral high ground.

Arguing for liberals, Howard Dean said, “The Vietnam war was on us [Democrats] for the most part; Iraq, the second Iraq war, was on Republicans for the most part.” But there was a substantive difference between the parties, Dean went on. Democrats tend to require better records on human rights of the rulers they support, Republicans leave that out of the equation.

Brooks responded:

I was so-called neoconservative. That’s what we cared about. We wanted to defeat the Soviet Union to preserve the human rights of the Soviet Union. We went into Iraq because we thought it would help for democracy around the world, and we overstepped in that case. But it was a human rights-based, democracy- and freedom-based foreign policy that Ronald Reagan stood for.

Sadly, no one pressed the neoconservatives’ Iraq story. Though at other times in the debate Brooks struck conservative themes that, had he taken them seriously, should have stopped him from supporting the Iraq invasion.

Notably, Brooks said he was a socialist through college, till he became a police reporter in Chicago and saw that “well intentioned social programs” — urban renewal — “destroyed neighborhoods” in Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor homes.

It taught me a great truth. That the world is very complicated and we have to be very careful about how we mess with it. I read a guy I had hated in college, named Edmund Burke, who had a phrase, “epistemological modesty.” He said, Be careful about thinking you can radically change the world. And I covered that wreckage. I became a conservative because I think change should be incremental, gradual and slow, and We shouldn’t be arrogant in  the use of power.

David Bromwich of Yale University is probably the world’s leading scholar of the conservative thinker, Edmund Burke. Bromwich notes that Brooks has never really come clean on Iraq, and that he’s not alone.

Brooks hasn’t ever said he was wrong to promote the Iraq war. You get the same reticence in George Packer and other mainstream opinion writers — as if we couldn’t know better at the time. But of course we could know better and many said so at the time. ‘Everyone had such good intentions, it’s too bad it didn’t work out’ — that’s the message between the lines, too, in Thomas Friedman, David Remnick, and others who took care to dissociate themselves from the politics of Bush and Cheney, but worked hard to legitimate the war. Leon Wieseltier wrote in March 2013, ‘The Iraq war began wrongly and ended rightly’ (and a few months later, ISIS took over Mosul). Andrew Sullivan was the only person in that neocon/liberal interventionist opinion phalanx who actually expressed remorse — a judgment that has a very different sound:

‘My misjudgment at the deepest moral level of what Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were capable of — a misjudgment that violated the moral core of the enterprise — was my worst mistake. What the war has done to what is left of Iraq — the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed — was bad enough. But what was done to America — and the meaning of America — was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.'”

Brooks’s most forthcoming column on his error was titled, “Learning from Mistakes,” in May 2015. There is not a word of real contrition here; it is more of a sermon: lofty language without introspection. “Iraq teaches us to be suspicious of leaders who try to force revolutionary, transformational change. It teaches us to have respect for trimmers.” He speaks here of “epistemological modesty” and says it was lacking. He does include himself, by the way:

From the current vantage point, the decision to go to war was a clear misjudgment, made by President George W. Bush and supported by 72 percent of the American public who were polled at the time. I supported it, too.

What can be learned?

The first obvious lesson is that we should look at intelligence products with a more skeptical eye.

It would seem that his Iraq pretext keeps shifting too; that time it was about WMD.

P.S. In the New York debate, Brooks said that liberals and conservatives need to get together to deal with a common enemy:

Global populism is the big threat. . . . What is the story both of us tell, against the populists?

Does he mean “the Arab street”? Probably a lot of the left might have a different story to tell here.

H/t Cynthia Kling.

James North and Philip Weiss

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8 Responses

  1. ritzl on December 12, 2017, 12:27 pm

    [Brooks] Iraq was Iraq, and it didn’t work out. But at least it was a belief in essential progress – that history is not just an endless war of all against all, but a common march toward a more common future.

    What does that even mean? It’s not “all against all” but merely “us” against “them”?

    Can a person that is that muddled EVER come clean about anything.

    And Dean “counters” with “R2P” (the neo-lib version of “us against them”)? “Democrats tend to require better records on human rights of the rulers they support…” (i.e. kill hundreds of thousands of people to install these new leaders?; open slave markets in Libya selling black Africans, anyone?). Blech.

    Hey CigarGod, if you are awake, or when you do wake up…kick me. Please

  2. annie on December 12, 2017, 1:30 pm

    this reminds me of a really great recent article by max abrahms, “The pundits were wrong about Assad and the Islamic State. As usual, they’re not willing to admit it”,amp.html?__twitter_impression=true

    • gamal on December 12, 2017, 3:53 pm

      “As usual, they’re not willing to admit it”

      Jonathan Cook points out why they can’t admit error, because it can not be spun as error, how come these people always err in the same direction, and why is there an unwillingness on the part of supporters of the Humanitarian and “Adavancement” Imperial narrative to examine the fundamental ideological premises they base this murderousness on..George Carlin is sadly missed, or even to explain how they can act outside the Law, as in the case of Palestine, Syria, etc…

      I mean now we can all agree that “headchoppers”, “salafists”, “terrorists”, “militants”, “Hamas” are loathsome and should be killed or at least “neutralised”, it surprises me that no one who believes this wants to, with deep context( context appears to be cryptonite to many “Liberal Progressives”), why they believe this, think what might happen if your regime spent 2.3 trillion on the humanities…it couldn’t hurt but I get the feeling nothing is going to help, after all Savages are a kind of solution and it is impossible to even imagine America without the freshly cut scalps of savages tucked in to her belt, its what you do.

      there can be no peace with superior people, because they are blind and are driven to dominate, so it’s going to kick did a long time ago,

      “Loyal only to fair debate

      So let me address Whitaker’s allegations.

      1. Neither I nor Media Lens are “loyal supporters” of Hersh – or Assad. Whitaker is projecting. He has chosen a side in Syria – that of what he simplistically terms the “rebels”, now dominated by Al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS, backed by an unholy alliance of Saudi Arabia, the US, Europe, Israel and Turkey. But not everyone who opposes the Islamic extremists, or Whitaker’s group of western interventionists, has therefore chosen Assad’s side.

      One can choose the side of international law and respect for the sovereignty of nation-states, and object to states fomenting proxy wars to destabilise and destroy other regimes.

      More than that, one can choose to maintain a critical distance and, based on experience, remain extremely wary of official and self-serving narratives promoted by the world’s most powerful states. Some of us think there are lessons to be learnt from the lies we were told about WMD in Iraq, or a supposedly imminent massacre by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi.

      These examples of deception should be remembered when we try to assess how probable is the story that Assad wanted to invite yet more destructive interference in his country from foreign powers by gassing his own people – and to no obvious strategic or military advantage. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me three times, I should just admit I am a gullible fool.

      I and Media Lens (if I may presume to speak on their behalf as a longtime follower) are not arguing that Hersh’s account must be right. Just that it deserves attention, and that it should be part of the media / public discourse. What concerns us is the inadmissibility of relevant information to the public realm, and concerted efforts to stifle debate. Manufactured groupthink, it has been repeatedly shown, works to the benefit of the powerful, those promoting the destructive interests of a now-global military-industrial complex.

      Whitaker and the interventionists want only the official narrative allowed, the one that serves their murky political agenda; we want countervailing voices heard too. That doesn’t make us anyone’s loyalists. It makes us loyal only to the search for transparency and truth.”

  3. Boomer on December 12, 2017, 1:53 pm

    re: “‘Everyone had such good intentions, it’s too bad it didn’t work out’ — that’s the message between the lines, too, in Thomas Friedman, David Remnick, and others who took care to dissociate themselves from the politics of Bush and Cheney, but worked hard to legitimate the war.”

    Don’t have to read between the lines to understand Friedman. He spells it out. “We” [meaning the “elites” who matter] “needed” to tell the Arabs to “* ** *.” Warning: may not be suitable for all audiences: contains extreme pomposity, self-importance, self-satisfaction, moral blindness, and condescension.

  4. pabelmont on December 12, 2017, 4:07 pm

    He says the Iraq war was fought to promote (impose?) democracy? Another kill the people to save them (VietNam) idea?

    All this makes me think that the public should demand that when war is proposed, a big discussion happen (in public) where historians, sociologists, warriors, human-rights-proponents, geographic-area-specialists, best-and-highest-uses-of-American-money folks (are there any such?), and others talk so that a list of pluses-and-minuses of going to war, refraining from war, and other policy choices, could be examined.

    Big decisions made too quickly (think of the recent senate tax bill!) and without discussion always seem wrong to me, put-up-jobs, special-pleading, con-jobs, oligarchy-in-action.

    This thinking goes for other decision making.

    Current thinking on opposing global warming/climate change (GWCC) is mostly along the lines of PRO: “we must cut back on emitting OC2/methane, but we cannot do it too quickly because it will hurt too much (too expensive and disruptive)” sand CON: “phooey, it’s all a hoax.” Forgetting the CON, there is another angle on the PRO: “We must also spend money to build mechanisms to remove existing and soon-to-be-added CO2 from the atmosphere”.

    In other words, the single-minded goal of slowing emissions is not enough and the additional (not alternative) goal of removing CO2 is also not enough, and we should think that maybe other things may be necessary or desirable. Which leads to this idea (retuning to the first idea, above): we should have climate scientists and engineers and biologists and geologists and economists and historians and many others discuss all this (and the general problem of GWCC) before we make major decisions.

    Because while describing possible/likely climatic outcomes of human behavior on GWCC is a scientific matter, deciding on GOALS is not at all scientific or all engineering, but human and humane, moral and ethical, but must be based on the best advice decision makers can get, and that advice cannot be ONLY scientific or engineering but must also be biological, ethical, moral, etc.

    And the politicians who are so happy with themselves for pretending to have done enough at Paris should get a good slap in the face with the realities that they are hiding from — they, the “PRO” politicians!

    As to the “CON” politicians, well that’s another problem.

  5. Elizabeth Block on December 13, 2017, 10:22 am

    “’Well intentioned social programs’ — urban renewal.”
    Really? He is, I think, old enough to have read Jane Jacobs, and to know that “urban renewal” means, meant, destroying functioning neighbourhoods and leaving the residents to find somewhere else where they could afford to live.
    Another writer he should have read is Barbara Tuchman, “The March of Folly.” Anyone with any sense could see that Iraq was never going to be what George Bush said it would be: both (a) democratic and (b) pro-American. Possibly one or the other, possibly neither – as it turned out – but not both.

  6. JosephA on December 13, 2017, 11:57 am

    The genocide against the Iraqi people at the hands of the Americans was pretty heinous. I believe history will frown upon this sad chapter of humanity.

  7. James Canning on December 13, 2017, 1:42 pm

    The idiotic US invasion of Iraq was “a belief in essential progress”? Rubbish. The duping of G. W. Bush relied on the foolish claim by the neocons that Iraq would emerge as a democracy and an ally of Israel in the Middle East.

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