Joshua Muravchik wrote what I thought was a sharp and sensible item about Zbigniew Brzezinski here yesterday. Others disagree. Andrew Sullivan called Josh’s posting a “brutal, personal attack.” Andrew then proceeded to note that he is still waiting “for one leading neocon to examine some of the premises that led us into what is clearly a bloody and endless trap in Iraq.”
To paraphrase Josh, this is rich. Actually, it is not just rich, it is a parfait on top of tiramisu.
Leading neoconservatives have been examining the premises which led us to topple Saddam Hussein longer than Andrew has been lambasting conservatives—and avidly flagellating himself—for supporting the war.
One highly pertinent examination was Norman Podhoretz’s essay “Who Is Lying About Iraq?”
As Podhoretz noted there, first and foremost among the reasons we went to war was the widely shared belief that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Podhoretz noted that in judging Iraq’s progress toward the acquisition of such weapons, Bush’s CIA director George Tenet
had the backing of all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States. In the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, where their collective views were summarized, one of the conclusions offered with “high confidence” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” The intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and—yes—France all agreed with this judgment.
So did Andrew Sullivan. Here is one sample of what he was saying before the war was under way: “The question with Iraq is simple,” Andrew wrote on October 20, 2002:
in trying to stop Saddam getting a nuke, do we follow the same policies as Clinton and Carter in 1994 with North Korea, or do we try something else? Amazingly, large swathes of apparently intelligent people seem to think we should try the Carter/Clinton approach to Iraq. My view is simple: if we do not disarm Saddam now, we never will. And if we don’t, a full-scale nuclear, biological and chemical war is inevitable in the Middle East; and that war, with the help of terror groups like al Qaeda, will soon come to LA and New York and London and Washington. So the choice is a dangerous war now; or a much more destructive war later. I know democracies don’t like to hear these as the two options; democracies rightly, understandably hate to go to war. But these choices, in my view, are the only ones we actually have. So what’s it gonna be? Or do we still want to change the subject?
After we were already in the war and had toppled Saddam Hussein, and doubts began to arise about whether Iraq did in fact have weapons of mass destruction, Andrew continued his defense of the enterprise. On October 3, 2003, in the Washington Times, he wrote:
Today’s ubiquitous second-guessers would have us believe that there was an easy alternative to confronting Saddam earlier this year, and deposing him. But there were no good options—and none better than the difficult decision to go to war. President Bush should, in my view, say something similar at some point. I know that any concession with regard to prewar intelligence can lead to the anti-war hysterics piling on and the Democratic opportunists playing clairvoyants. But the point of concession is to say that he took the right decision—even if the intelligence turned out to be flawed—and may have to make a similar decision again. The threat has not gone away.
And a week later, also in the Washington Times, Andrew continued in the same vein, while adding some additional reasons we were still right to go to war:
The casus belli was not proof of Saddam’s existing weapons, but proof of his refusal to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors or account fully for his WMD research. Nothing we have discovered after the war has debunked or undermined any of these reasons. And the moral reason for getting rid of an unconscionably evil regime has actually gotten stronger now that we see the full extent of his terror-state.
And by late January, 2004, when it was becoming clearer that Saddam did not have the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction all had feared, Andrew continued to remain on board, writing in the Washington Times yet again:
I still believe in the need to take out WMD threats before they take us out. And I don’t buy the argument that you have to have proof of actual ready-to-go weapons in order to take action. All you really need is componentry. And the preliminary Kay report convinced me—and still convinces me—that the war was worthwhile, that Saddam Hussein had been lying, that he couldn’t be trusted, that we had no viable future alternative to war [sanctions were becoming grotesquely immoral and porous] and that the future threat was absolutely real. But—and it’s a big but—we made the case on the existence of actual, operational WMD and stockpiles of the same. We did so publicly, openly, clearly to as big a global audience as we could find. We said: Trust us. We know. But we didn’t. I cannot see how a single ally will support us in future similar circumstances because of that. Certainly, Britain won’t be able to. And I think a large swathe of American public opinion will be more skeptical than ever. It’s not exactly a case of crying wolf. The wolf was there all right. It’s a function of exaggerating a threat. I believe it was an honest mistake.
In April 2004, around the time the Abu-Ghraib story broke, Andrew Sullivan came to have great misgivings about the way the Bush administration was handling the war. He’s been a shrill critic ever since and has expressed his “shame and sorrow” for his initial support of the war.
Some of his criticisms are legitimate. Many of them, expressed in lacerating—sometimes self-lacerating—tones, are not. But when it comes to the basic decision to go to war, Andrew has disavowed his initial position for reasons that hindsight, and only hindsight, can provide.
Given what we knew at the time, going to war was a necessary move. A legitimate debate can be held now about the mistakes made along the way, about the path forward, or about whether and how to exit. But in conducting that debate, let us not erase the past. By all means let us examine the premises that led us into this war. And let us examine exactly who shared those premises and why.