Did Paul Berman Tell Us So?

In the midst of an argument with Ian Buruma, liberal hawk extraordinaire Paul Berman tries to convince us that he actually called Iraq correctly, and has merely been magnanimous in not pointing that out:

I approved on principle the overthrow of Saddam. I never did approve of Bush's way of going about it. In the run-up to the war, I became, on practical grounds, ever more fearful that, in his blindness to liberal principles, Bush was leading us over a cliff. [...] It is true and it is a matter of satisfaction to me that, in the years since then, I have not made a career of saying "I told you so."

Here's what Berman was actually writing in February 2003:

In my own judgment, Fischer and his fellow thinkers in Europe and even in the United States are making a mistake in failing to press for a harder line against Iraq—a harder line that might bring about Saddam's collapse more or less peacefully or, if need be, not peacefully. It should be obvious that, in the Arab world, fascist and Nazi-like movements—political tendencies that call for random mass murder in the name of paranoid and apocalyptic ideas—have gotten completely out of hand. In the last 20 years, Baathist and Islamist movements—the two branches of what ought to be regarded as Muslim fascism—have killed millions of people and might well kill many more, and not just in the Muslim countries, as we have reason to know. A war against Muslim fascism ought to be seen as a continuation of the long struggle against Nazism and fascism in Europe—a continuation of the same decent and necessary cause that people like Fischer have always wanted to support, even if they have not always known how to do so in a sensible way.

He was worried about Bush's failure to embrace liberalism, but it wasn't a worry that this meant the war would go badly, it was a worry that Bush wasn't being as rhetorically persuasive as he should have been:

Maybe Fischer is not convinced because the Bush administration has presented a series of side arguments about weapons, U.N. resolutions, and dark terrorist conspiracies and has failed to present the main argument, which is the single huge argument that has always sustained the Western alliance. This argument is the one about totalitarianism. It is the argument that says: The totalitarians are dangerous to themselves and to us, and we had better fight them. Fight wisely, of course, which the New Left notoriously managed not to do long ago, but fight. Why can't Bush make that argument? I won't speculate. But he could change. He gave up drinking long ago. Let him give up his arrogance, small-mindedness, and aversion to large and idealistic ideas today. It might help.

And here he was in January 2004 when many people still thought the war was going well:

What was the reason for the war in Iraq? Sept. 11 was the reason. At least to my mind it was. Sept. 11 showed that totalitarianism in its modern Muslim version was not going to stop at slaughtering millions of Muslims, and hundreds of Israelis, and attacking the Indian government, and blowing up American embassies. The totalitarian manias were rising, and the United States itself was now in danger. A lot of people wanted to respond, as any mayor would do, by rounding up a single Bad Guy, Osama.

But Sept. 11 did not come from a single Bad Guy—it was a product of the larger totalitarian wave, and the only proper response was to comprehend the size and depth of that larger wave, and find ways to begin rolling it back, militarily and otherwise—mostly otherwise. To roll it back for our own sake, and everyone else's sake, Muslims' especially. Iraq, with its somewhat antique variation of the Muslim totalitarian idea, was merely a place to begin, after Afghanistan, with its more modern variation.

In short, Berman was wrong. The reason he hasn't made a career of telling us "I told you so" is that, in this instance at least, he didn't tell us so. But now he's trying to tell us that he did tell us so. But all he told us was that had Bush employed more Berman-style rhetoric then maybe more of Berman's friends would, like Berman, have wrongly deciding that an invasion of Iraq was a good idea.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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