Bipartisan Fury Over Bill Keller's Iraq War Mea Culpa

His letter of regret draws ire from across the political spectrum

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Bill Keller is used to being a public punching bag following the publication of his magazine essays. But the former New York Times executive editor reached new heights in bipartisan fury today for his somber recollection of his stewardship of The Times during the run-up to the Iraq War, a period in which the newspaper drew fire for its series of "exclusives" on weapsons of mass destruction and lack of scrutiny of the Bush administration's rhetoric. (Keller has been the newspaper's top editor since 2003 after a stint as an opinion columnist and senior writer for the magazine that started in 2001.)

In his essay published today, Keller clearly expresses regret for the paper's record during those years and his own hawkish support for the Iraq war—a position he partially attributes to his paternal instincts at the time:

I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism.

Keller mentions several of the columns he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11, but he leaves out one that was particularly fear-inducing: a nearly 8,000-word New York Times Magazine feature called "Nuclear Nightmares," whose graphic description of what the detonation of a one-kiloton nuclear bomb in Times Square would do made more than one New Yorker question their real estate choices. However, to a broad range of pundits, from liberal to conservative to libertarian, the essay struck a raw nerve. Here are their range of reasons:

He tries to lay the blame on others, writes libertarian blogger Mike Riggs at Reason: "Here is Keller listing the roster for his boys club of 'skeptics'-turned-hawks, who could not possibly all have been wrong, even if the NYT's bad reporting informed their opinions." He then reproduces the following passage from Keller:

During the months of public argument about how to deal with Saddam Hussein, I christened an imaginary association of pundits the I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club, made up of liberals for whom 9/11 had stirred a fresh willingness to employ American might. It was a large and estimable group of writers and affiliations, including, among others, Thomas Friedman of The Times; Fareed Zakaria, of Newsweek; George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker; Richard Cohen of The Washington Post; the blogger Andrew Sullivan; Paul Berman of Dissent; Christopher Hitchens of just about everywhere; and Kenneth Pollack, the former C.I.A. analyst whose book, The Threatening Storm, became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat. (Yes, it is surely relevant that this is exclusively a boys’ club.)

This doesn't come close to an apology, writes liberal blogger Greg Mitchell at The Nation.

Keller, in the new piece, admits invading Iraq was a "monumental blunder" but over and over rationalizes his support for it.  His key claim is:  Sure, in retrospect, it was FUBAR, but "Whether it was wrong to support the invasion at the time is a harder call."  In other words: Cut me some (a lot of) slack here. 

One of his explanations --"I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly" -- makes him look like a fool, since so many others did predict that.  His second line of defense, "I could not have known how bad the intelligence was" is equally damning.  Note the use of "could not have known" when a humble, honest man might have written, "I should have known."

It smacks of self-importance, writes conservative Town Hall blogger Hugh Hewitt:

The thousands who died in the war, the tens of thousands who were wounded and the millions who served are all --each one of them-- far more important than Bill Keller and his little band of scribblers who still think they played a role in the decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq

Keller's a revisionist historian, writes Middle East writer Matthew Taylor at Mondoweiss, replying to Keller's assessment that the costs of occupying Iraq were "greater than anyone anticipated":

Speak for yourself Keller, but millions worldwide anticipated that the costs would be enormous – and were not fooled by the WMD scaremongering. Nowhere in Keller's ramble does he mention the fact that Bush launched the invasion while inspectors were literally back in Iraq inspecting for WMDs, which I cannot see as anything but proof positive that this war had nothing to do with containing Iraq's WMD ability.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.