Re-Reading Kristol


I have a bunch of books in my Ptown shack, remnants of summer reading from years gone by and I stumbled across a classic yesterday: "The War Over Iraq" by Lawrence Kaplan and Bill Kristol. It's an Encounter book from 2002/2003 before the invasion, and Kristol should hope it's out of print. Reading it years later, its tone and content are shockingly off-base, and most of its core assertions and arguments categorically refuted by history. In fact, it would be very hard to think of a piece of analysis so riddled with misconceptions and errors and so self-evidently wrong in almost every respect only five years later. For errors this huge, of course, and a tenacious refusal to admit them and account for them, is what gives a writer a prestigious perch at the New York Times.

But more revealing in a way is the book's focus: it's almost entirely on internal American debates, on the ancient post-Vietnam boomer split on foreign policy, on settling scores with the first Bush administration, and extrapolating the roll-back of the Reagan years to a post-9/11 world. The complex, difficult, murky reality of Iraq and its people remains clouded behind a Berlin wall of ideology. But among the core points of the book with respect to Iraq: there are no deep sectarian divisions, there would never be a civil war or anything approximating it once we removed Saddam, and the smallest of forces and lowest of costs would be needed for turning the place into a beacon of democracy. A typical passage from page 98:

The United States may need to occupy Iraq for some time. Though U.N., European and Arab forces will, as in Afghanistan, contribute troops, the principal responsibility will doubtless fall to the country that liberates Baghdad. According to one estimate, initially as many as 75,000 troops may be required to police the war's aftermath, at a cost of $16 billion a year. As other countries' forces arrive, and as Iraq rebuilds its economy and political system, that force could probably be drawn down to several thousand soldiers after a year or two.

So let's be very, very clear: Kristol - not Rumsfeld or Franks or anyone else who bungled the execution - favored and supported a tiny post-war occupation force, less than half what was required even five years after invasion to prevent a metastasizing civil war. The civil war raged with enough ferocity to kill and maim and traumatize millions of Iraqis and thousands of Americans. Kristol sold the war on what turned out to be the preposterous sum of $16 billion a year. The figure has ended up at around $12 billion a month. So Kristol was off in his troops levels by a factor of two at the start of the occupation and by up to 20 today and he was off in his cost levels by a factor of ten. He also predicted "several thousand" troops by 2005, compared with 150,000 today.

Now, we all get things wrong, and I certainly got things massively wrong.

But when you're this prominent a war-backer and you get things this wrong on a subject this important, don't you think a smidgen of self-criticism or self-analysis could be in order? (I'm omitting the fact that the WMD casus belli Kristol also asserted as fact was a total chimera, but gien the number of Kristol's errors, this now seems small beer). Kristol has indeed criticized the war's execution but always against others, especially Rumsfeld. Kristol has never fully copped to, let alone apologized and accounted for, his own profound errors and responsibility for the catastrophe in Mesopotamia. And yet Kristol now writes with an assurance about Iraq - yes, the subject on which his credibility among intelligent people should be precisely zero - as if his critics are still the ones who need to prove their point beyond the benefit of any doubt.

It seems to me that we demand accountability from our politicians and we should demand accountability from our intellectuals. Not that they always get things right - but that they give a full accounting when they are wrong. Instead we reward and celebrate those who not only get things wrong - Kristol and Rove now have prominent columns in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal - but those who have never taken personal responsibility for their own mistakes. Until we purge all these tendencies from Washington, we will not learn from history and we will keep repeating it.