Disillusioned But Accountable

GENERIC Bush Iraq AP / CBS

This column from The New Republic was written by Lawrence F. Kaplan.

According to this week's TNR endorsement of John Kerry, the aim of a democratic Iraq amounted to a noble enterprise -- if only the Bush team had proved competent in any enterprise apart from cutting taxes and pursuing a recklessly partisan agenda. The occupation of Iraq, the editorial notes, has been "conducted with such shocking arrogance and carelessness that it calls into question whether the Bush administration's pledge to turn Iraq into a model democracy was ever really sincere." Fair enough. But does the bungled implementation of its proposals relieve the magazine of any need to acknowledge responsibility for what followed from its own arguments? In pinning exclusive blame on the Bush team for everything that has gone wrong in Iraq, the editorial certainly seems to suggest this. In this respect, it is neither unique nor correct.

There's nothing wrong with changing one's opinion. Facts change, after all, and minds change with them. But in a mass flight from accountability, disillusioned hawks have come awfully close to arguing that the war that fills Walter Reed's beds wasn't their idea. No one has espoused this view more vigorously than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who -- like the TNR editorial -- credits "how we got so off track in Iraq" to the fact that it "has always been more important for the Bush folks to defeat liberals at home than Baathists abroad." Neatly summarizing the revised wisdom, Slate editor and former war-supporter Jacob Weisberg concludes that, while the rationale for war may have been sound in conception, "Bush was the wrong president to do it." In attempts to salvage the purity of an ideal from its bloody application on the ground, even those who still support the war -- this writer included -- have taken advantage of the Bush-bashing loophole.

None of this is to excuse the administration for its obvious and avoidable failures in Iraq. But it's no good to argue that we weren't given the war we were promised. To begin with, war always involves unintended consequences. And if many of this war's consequences should have been anticipated, well, as Weisberg acknowledges, common sense should have alerted all but the most obtuse idealists to the fact that George Marshall wouldn't be the one enshrining their preferences in official policy. After two years of watching the Bush team in action, no member of the "Who, me?" chorus can plausibly claim to have been oblivious to the limitations of the policymakers they were entrusting with an enterprise of this scope.

More important, it's not so easy to disentangle problems blamed on defects of implementation from the very ideas today's war critics were championing only yesterday. After all, it was precisely the aims that generated support from liberal and conservative idealists alike -- liberation, de-Baathification, democratization, non-sectarianism -- which helped underpin errors from rosy occupation scenarios to the conviction that Iraqis would quickly embrace the cause of liberty. Far from being the exclusive property of Paul Wolfowitz, these assumptions were a staple among many of those who now speak as though the administration had spun them out of whole cloth.

But that was before Iraq began to come apart at the seams. Hence, Harvard's Michael Ignatieff, whose name became synonymous with the case for humanitarian intervention in Iraq, now claims it was "fantasy" for the administration to go "into Iraq assuming that its challenge was humanitarian." Hence, too, the insistence that America's duty would not be discharged until it finished "stabilizing, rebuilding, reforming, preserving the unity of, and ultimately democratizing Iraq" -- spelled out in a statement signed by a who's who of democratic idealists on the eve of war -- has been disowned by its most outspoken signatories. One of them, Peter Galbraith, repudiates the ideal of a democratic or even a unitary Iraq in a New York Review of Books essay entitled, appropriately enough, "HOW TO GET OUT OF IRAQ." Another, the Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder, writes that in "Iraq today, America no longer offers a solution. It has become part of the problem." Then there is Brookings' Kenneth Pollack, who literally wrote the book of why we should go to war and who has spent the past year distancing himself from its contents. The Bush team, you see, "had not taken most of the precautionary measures I had recommended."

But when it comes to Iraq -- to paraphrase Robert Kennedy's remark about Vietnam -- there's enough responsibility to go around. Maybe, as during that earlier war, distancing oneself from a troubled war reflects some kind of heightened moral awareness. But one can't simply discount the weight of one's earlier claims without assuming some measure of culpability for the result. Absent such an acknowledgement, the point is merely to comfort the sensibilities of those who profess shock at the images on their TV screens. It testifies to their virtue and good intentions. It offers assurance that their ideas did not, in fact, have consequences. They did.


Lawrence F. Kaplan is a senior editor at TNR.


By Lawrence F. Kaplan
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