Another Misguided 'Mini-Culpa' from Bill Keller of NYT on Backing Iraq War

Bill Keller, the top editor at the New York Times since July 2003, has penned a lengthy piece for this Sunday's Times Magazine, which was launched online early this week, as if the world could not wait another day for it. This coincides with the end of Keller's tenure at the top, with longtime #2 Jill Abramson taking over, and his slide over to the job of opinion columnist. He uses this timing to explain why, after more than eight years, he is finally writing about that infamous period when (just before he became editor) he served as a leading "liberal hawk" backing the invasion of Iraq. Keller claims he couldn't do this before, as editor, but is free to do so now, as just another pundit.

There is so much wrong with this explanation, and so much else in his piece, that one doesn't know where to start. In sum, it amounts to another "mini culpa" from Keller. That's the phrase coined by Jack Shafer, then at Slate, describing Keller's halfhearted editor's note (neither correction or apology) on his paper's error-ridden coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. More on that later.

Here are some initial thoughts:

§ Keller sets the wrong contextual tone right from the start, adopting as his headline "My Unfinished 9/11 Business." Then he stoops to citing the birth of his daughter shortly after 9/11 as a motivator for his hawkishness, because now: "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."

§ So, like George Bush, he turned his "attention to Iraq, a place that had, in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11, but which would be its most contentious consequence." Note the qualifier "almost" noting to do with 9/11. What, exactly, did it have to do with 9/11 in the "literal sense"?

§ As noted, Keller claims early on that he couldn't write about his support for the war after he became editor. "I was obliged to keep my opinions to myself lest they be mistaken for the newspaper's agenda or influence our coverage." He admits he is "the last of the club to retrace my steps." First, that excuse is invalid. There was nothing, besides lack of of guts and fear of mockery, to keep him, years later, from revisiting his support for the war back in 2003.

Second, contrary to what he claims this week, he has retraced his steps at length before, as long ago as June 14, 2003, in a Times piece titled "The Boys Who Cried Wolfowitz." Here he defended/explained his hawkishness on invading Iraq in several ways including: "I supported it mainly because of the convergence of a real threat and a real opportunity." Saddam's "brazen defiance made us seem weak and vulnerable, an impression we can ill afford. The opportunity was a moment of awareness and political will created by Sept. 11..." As for the missing WMD, well, they might still show up, and: "Even if you throw out all the tainted evidence, there was still what prosecutors call probable cause to believe that Saddam was harboring frightful weapons, and was bent on acquiring the most frightful weapons of all." Much of the intel gathering community does seem "corrupted" but this hardly "invalidates the war we won."

§ 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."

§ Another way he rationalizes his behavior is to name and quote other "reluctant hawks" -- he calls them a "large and estimable" group -- including Tom Friedman, Richard Cohen, Jacob Weisberg. Andrew Sullivan, Paul Berman, Fareed Zakaria and Kenneth Pollack. And he points out -- no harm, no foul? -- that Bush and his cronies hardly needed permission from the NYT to take out Saddam. Yet he then admits (in passing) that the administration loved to cite the liberal hawks to prove the broad-based nature of their support.

§ While he cites some of what he wrote in 2003, he omits this key passage: "Bush will be able to claim, with justification, that the coming war is a far cry from [a] rash, unilateral adventure..." He also fails to quote from his December 14, 2002 column, where he wrote: "How will Iraqis react to an invasion? (Many of them with an outpouring of relief, wouldn't you think?" And he complained: "Why, aside from their roots in the Vietnam antiwar movement, are human rights activists not more open to the idea that America can use its unmatched muscle for good?"

Then, from February 22, 2003: "[W]hat the antiwar camp offers as an antidote to fear is a false sense of security. In the short run, war is perilous. In the long run, peace can be a killer, too"

§ Keller claims that the often brave and excellent NYT coverage of the Iraq war as it unfolded made up for its role in promoting the same war, with unfathomably deadly and tragic results. He actually uses the phrase "made amends." It's like a father tossing his kid in a raging river and then bragging about how he then rushed in to try to save him.

§ Keller falsely claims full and broad "consensus" that Saddam had WMD, and finds the ludicrous claims "understandable" given Saddam's history. He puts a lot of blame for this on Colin Powell and his UN speech, barely mentioning, for example, the Knight Ridder reporters and others who raised serious questions about the WMD intel long before that (not to mention the millions in the streets marching against the war and all those countries that refused to be part of the coalition of the "willing"). In a January 25, 2003 column, Keller himself noted: "The polls that show support for war steadily dwindling are not likely to get better." And they didn't.

§ Keller then makes this humiliating admission, after noting that reporter Fred Kaplan quickly dropped out of the hawk camp: "The rest of us were still a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys." (No wonder he waited until this week to write this column.)

Keller also makes the embarrassing admission: "I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough." But don't look for any heartfelt apology attached to that--beyond the unavoidable "I was wrong" -- even though Keller admits that Kaplan's predictions about chaos in postwar Iraq made him a "Nostradamus." Again, this is revisionist history from Keller: Kaplan was hardly alone in making those claims.

§ Keller barely refers, near the end, to the criminally wrong reporting by Judy Miller and others at his paper in the run-up to the war -- and fails to recall his May 2004 "mini-culpa" on these blunders. He took over a year to admit the mistakes, then put the relatively brief note inside the paper (on page 10); failed to name names, and refused (apparently) to punish anyone. In a revealing interview that day in the Washington Post, the notoriously thin-skinned Keller attacked "overwrought" critics of the WMD coverage. He also revealed that the only reason he ran the note was because criticism had become a "distraction. The buzz about our coverage had become a kind of conventional wisdom." In a note to his staff, Keller explained that he had no intention of blaming reporters "for not knowing then what we know now." Of course, the problem was that some reporters ignored evidence "we know now" but was also available when they wrote their false stories.

§ Keller, of course, also took years to push Judy Miller out -- and compounding his earlier mistakes by backing her fully during the Libby case, when he even failed (he eventually admitted) to ask her for her notes on her chats with him about Valerie Plame. His paper's probe of the entire affair concluded that Keller had killed stories related to the case for fear of hurting Miller's case, which "humiliated" Times reporters and caused wide in-house dissension.

§ Keller blames "the left" for claiming that the paper's coverage by the likes of Judy Miller and Michael Gordon fed the suspicion that the paper was "not to be trusted." Imagine that! He even quotes John Burns slamming the critics: "We were all liars, warmongers, lapdogs of Bush and Cheney and so forth."

§  Keller mentions Paul Wolfowitz in passing but fails to note his lengthy profile of the war architect in the Times magazine from Sept. 22, 2002. Sample quote: "Paul Wolfowitz, who is interesting and complicated, has been cast since Sept. 11 in the role of zealot... The shorthand version of Paul Wolfowitz, however, is inadequate in important ways. It completely misses his style, which relies on patient logic and respectful, soft-spoken engagement rather than on fire-breathing conviction." Keller described three "important" things Wolfowitz "brings to the table," including "something of a reputation as a man who sees trouble coming before others do, his long anxiety about Iraq being one example." Another "striking thing" about Wolfowitz: "an optimism about America's ability to build a better world."

If you think I'm being overly critical, check out Times' readers responses to the Keller piece here. It's clear that Tony Judt's label for Bill Keller and other liberals who backed the war -- "useful idiots" for Bush and Cheney -- is still apt. Former Bush press spokesman Scott McClellan, in his memoir, called journalists like Keller "enablers" for the war. "The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise," McClellan recalled. "In this case, the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

Greg Mitchell's books include "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits and the President Failed on Iraq." His latest book and e-book is "Atomic Cover-Up: Hiroshima & Nagasaki & The Greatest Movie Never Made."