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What Does Bill Kristol Know, Anyway?

We can, and should, oppose this degradation of our intellectual classes to a state in which the ability to concoct a pithy talking point, truthful or not, is the only qualification.
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Bill Kristol is rarely unsure about anything; Sunday was no exception. Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Kristol told host Chris Wallace that "the notion that a retreat in Iraq would not embolden terrorists elsewhere in the Middle East, and terror recruiters in the suburbs of London, is ludicrous. ... It's just factually true that our pulling out of Iraq will be bad for us in the global war on terror."

Now, I can't say for sure that Kristol is wrong. What I can say for sure is that we have absolutely no basis to believe Kristol was right. Kristol, after all, has a long track record of getting Iraq completely, and tragically, wrong. In April of 2003, he went on NPR's "Fresh Air" to say:

On this issue of the Shia in Iraq, I think there's been a certain amount of, frankly, Terry, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular.

Good one, Bill.

In February of 2003, he and Lawrence Kaplan told the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez that "having defeated and then occupied Iraq, democratizing the country should not be too tall an order for the world's sole superpower."

That one's turned out well.

Yet Fox still considers Kristol a legitimate pundit on the subject. Why, for God's sake? He has absolutely no experience or knowledge relevant to the subject. And again and again he has proven that any opinion coming from his mouth on the subject will be proven wrong.

The right's media critics have made it their mission to call for the regulation of the media by means of attacking the First Amendment, threatening those of us in the press who dare to do our jobs with the threat of violence. Maybe it's time for the rest of us to call for a little media regulation of our own, to ask that our pundits have some sort of license to spew, or at the very least have the ability to prove they know what the hell they're talking about. At the moment, the ability to produce a quick, uncomplicated talking point seems to be the only qualification.

Nearly the whole of what Eric Alterman terms the "punditocracy" was wrong on Iraq. They showed, conclusively, their utter ignorance of the subject. But when they finally turn around and actually come close to admitting they were wrong, as Thomas Friedman did recently (sort of - in punditry, it is always the other who has screwed up your perfect prognosis; you, the pundit, are never truly wrong), there are no consequences.

At Crooked Timber on Friday, blogger Henry Farrell pointed out that shortly after the start of the war in Iraq, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was saying, on the subject of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, that "Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We've had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven't found any, we will have a credibility problem. I don't have any doubt that we will locate them. I think it takes time."

A credibility problem? For falsely asserting that we would find WMD where there were none? Krauthammer's own words - but he still has a job at the Post, and now he's making similar wild claims about Iran.

Amir Taheri
told the world that the Iranians planned to make Jews in that country wear badges eerily similar to the ones the Nazis forced on their country's Jews before the Holocaust. He was wrong. According to The Nation's Larry Cohler-Esses, it wasn't the first time. "It was in 1989 that Taheri was first exposed as a journalistic felon," Cohler-Esses writes:

Shaul Bakhash, a reigning doyen of Persian studies, checked Taheri's footnotes... [and] detailed case after case in which Taheri cited nonexistent sources, concocted nonexistent substance in cases where the sources existed and distorted the substance beyond recognition when it was present. Taheri "repeatedly refers us to books where the information he cites simply does not exist," Bakhash wrote. "Often the documents cannot be found in the volumes to which he attributes them.... [He] repeatedly reads things into the documents that are simply not there." In one case, noted Bakhash, Taheri cited an earlier article of his own--but offered content he himself never wrote in that article. Bakhash concluded that Nest of Spies was "the sort of book that gives contemporary history a bad name." ...

In a New York Post column last year, Taheri identified Iran's UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, as one of the students involved in the illegal 1979 seizure of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. San Francisco State University professor Dwight Simpson wrote the Post politely to request a correction. "This allegation is false," he explained. "On November 4, 1979 [the day of the seizure], Javad Zarif was in San Francisco. He was then a graduate student in the Department of International Relations of San Francisco State University. He was my student, and he served also as my teaching assistant."

And yet Taheri is still writing for the Post, he's still cited as an expert in places like the National Review, and as the war machine keeps revving up for Iran, he will, as the Iranian Ahmed Chalabi, keep popping up.

We can, and should, oppose this degradation of our intellectual classes to a state in which the ability to concoct a pithy talking point, truthful or not, is the only qualification. But it's more important than that. Thousands of people have died because we listened to these pundits, and many others, the first time around. Unless we demand credibility and accuracy from our paid opinionmakers, and soon, thousands more may be the victims.

(This post originally appeared on, my blog for the online magazine Dragonfire.)