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.
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.