Think Again: It's Not What Bill Keller Believed About Iraq But Who

Writing in The New York Times Magazine this coming Sunday, Bill Keller, until Monday the paper's executive editor, addresses the same topic as my "Think Again" column of last week: the misguided and overly rosy assumptions that led the "liberal hawks" of 2003 to support George W. Bush's -- or, more accurately, Dick Cheney's -- relentless march to war.

In it, Keller recalls his charter membership in what he calls "the I-Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club," made up of liberals for whom 9/11 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 New York 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 CIA analyst whose book "The Threatening Storm" became the liberal manual on the Iraqi threat.

Keller gives a number of reasons for his support of the war. He relied heavily on the judgment of Pollack and on the words of Colin Powell regarding the threat of weapons of mass destruction. He also cites the views of Slate's Fred Kaplan, who found himself convinced by Powell's speech, as well.

Kaplan and Keller were certainly not alone. A study by Gilbert Cranberg, former editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register, found that Powell's speech was taken as gospel by almost everyone who "mattered." It was reported to contain "a massive array of evidence," "a detailed and persuasive case," "a powerful case," "a sober, factual case," "an overwhelming case," "a compelling case," "the strong, credible and persuasive case," "a persuasive, detailed accumulation of information," "a smoking fusillade ... a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable," "an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence," so that "only the most gullible and wishful thinking souls can now deny that Iraq is harboring and hiding weapons of mass destruction." "The skeptics asked for proof; they now have it."

"Powell's evidence," we were told, was "overwhelming," "ironclad ... incontrovertible," "succinct and damning ... the case is closed." "Colin Powell delivered the goods on Saddam Hussein." "If there was any doubt that Hussein ... needs to be ... stripped of his chemical and biological capabilities, Powell put it to rest."

And yet Powell employed all kinds of weasel words in his address. Over and over, Cranberg noted, he attributed his charges to the likes of "human sources," "an eyewitness," "detainees," "an al-Qaeda source," "a senior defector," "intelligence sources."

The Guardian reported that at a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria just before his talk, Powell complained to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the claims coming out of the Pentagon -- particularly those made by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz -- could not be substantiated (Straw denies that the meeting took place). Powell allegedly told the foreign secretary that he had just about "moved in" with his intelligence staff to prepare for his speech but had left his briefings "apprehensive," fearing that the evidence might "explode in their faces." Stories reported the Secretary of State throwing the documents in the air and declaring, "I'm not reading this. This is bullshit!" And so it was, though it was good enough for all of the liberal hawks.

As part of his rethinking, Keller writes, "In the end, the costs were greater than anyone anticipated because of calamitous mistakes in execution." Actually, this is false.

In an article entitled "Iraq: The Economic Consequences of War," published in The New York Review of Books in December 2002, William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale and a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers between 1977 and 1979, gave an estimate of the cost of war at potentially $1.6 trillion, which was based on a detailed assessment that was originally published as a lengthy study by Nordhaus for a book he published with the distinguished political scientists and economists Carl Kaysen, Steven E. Miller, Martin B. Malin and John D. Steinbruner.

Keller offers a number of other excuses for why he feels he was right to be so wrong about the war at the time: "I could not foresee that we would mishandle the war so badly. ... I could not have known how bad the intelligence was. ... and maybe [we were] 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."

That last reason is a key one. If ever there were a "ref" that was successfully worked, it was New York Times pundit and soon-to-be Executive Editor Bill Keller. Note how small the universe of "serious" people Keller is willing to include in his discussion.