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Once More, with Feeling

There's nothing wrong with having been spectacularly wrong on Iraq. It's what the antiwar crowd has done since April 9 that's unforgivable.

12:48 AM, Apr 24, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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SOMETIMES it's necessary to beat a dead horse. Many recriminations pieces have been written since the end of the war (here, for starters) and while they may seem like simple gloating, they're not. It's crucial to keep score on public commentators because if you bat .115 in the bigs, you get canned. Bob Herbert gets to write for forever.

So, a few stray scribbles which may have eluded you:

But, as we have heard the military saying goes, "Hope is not a plan." The plan was Bush's and Cheney's and Rumsfeld's, and as a result of it, hundreds of thousands of American and British soldiers are now stuck in what could prove to be a much more harrowing situation than those planners promised. . . .

--Scott Rosenberg, Salon, March 28, 2003

Of course, the administration may yet proceed with a fairly prompt move on Baghdad--i.e., without waiting for the 4th Infantry Division to arrive in mid-April. But approaching Baghdad with less than overwhelming force will probably mean more civilian casualties. The fewer ground troops we have, the more bombs we use; and the more precarious a soldier's position, the less picky he'll be about whom he shoots. . . .

--Robert Wright, Slate, April 1, 2003

The war machine is loose, apparently unstoppable. An escalating air war, a rush of reinforcements, an enemy that surprises, demonstrators in the streets, a nation divided. But as before [in Vietnam], Washington's war policy is made in fantasyland--and is even now being exposed as such.

--James Carroll, the Boston Globe, April 1, 2003

The dilemma is now acute. Retreat is unthinkable. George W. Bush's neoconservatives (standing safely in the back) will figuratively execute any who quail. The level of violence will therefore be raised. Meanwhile, the prime stocks of precision munitions have been drawn down, and speculation about the future use of cluster bombs and napalm and other vile weapons is being heard. And so the political battle--the battle for hearts and minds--will be lost. If history is a guide, you cannot subdue a large and hostile city except by destroying it completely. Short of massacre, we will not inherit a pacified Iraq.

--James K. Galbraith, the American Prospect, April 1, 2003

The pre-invasion hype had all been about festive Iraqis stocking up on flowers to give the kind of toothy colonial welcome the Queen gets from dancing Maoris on a royal tour. Now look what's happened. Our boys are faced with a medieval siege of Baghdad, and the reprisals of Saddam's death squads, with nothing to prepare the American public but the DVD of "Black Hawk Down."

--Tina Brown, the London Times, April 3, 2003

And concentrating on commentary leaves out some of the best worst prognosticating, which was done by actual reporters. There's no time to get bogged down in this sub-genre, but clearly the winner is this April 1 gem by Reuters' Merissa Marr, headlined "Iraq's No-Frills Media Show Outshines US, Britain." Excerpts:

Iraq is winning battles in the propaganda war with a modest media strategy, despite a multi-million dollar U.S. campaign featuring painstakingly choreographed briefings and Hollywood-style sets.

Undeterred by America's elaborate media plan, Iraq is making its mark on the airwaves with its decidedly basic approach, media pundits say.

From a crude Baghdad set, Iraqi ministers each day knock down Western media reports and list their latest claims of conquest, sometimes wielding chrome-plated Kalashnikovs.

Unlike America and its allies, theirs is a simple message delivered directly: "We will defeat the infidel invaders."

Despite poorly-lit surroundings and a sea of microphones often crowding the view, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf has become something of a global television star. . . .

As the dream of a quick, clean war and cheering Iraqis evaporated last week, America and its allies have been furiously tweaking their media strategy.

But how can they hope to gain the upper hand?

It's unclear how Marr will be able to keep her job. However you needn't worry about Galbraith and Wright and The Tina. For better or worse, pundits are never held accountable for their mistakes. And in one way, that's good for public discourse because it makes for lively argumentation. We shouldn't live in an intellectual Riyadh where they cut your pen off for wrongly predicting the outcomes of events.

After all, before the war, no one knew what would happen. Everyone had their suspicions and an incomplete set of facts and that was it.

But if a public figure is wrong about the question of the day, it is incumbent on them to (A) acknowledge their failure, and (B) honestly reevaluate their position, trying to understand why they were wrong.

Few of the people who opposed the war on grounds which have now been proved specious have made good. The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof went halfway, writing a column that acknowledged that he was wrong about the war becoming a bitter urban conflict. But he is quick to claim that while he and other antiwar voices were wrong, those that advocated the war were as well:

No one got the level of resistance quite right. We doves correctly foresaw that the war would not be a cakewalk, but for all our hand-wringing, there was never prolonged street-to-street fighting in Baghdad.

The ones who really blew it were the superraptors like Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and, to a lesser extent, Paul Wolfowitz . . .

It's not clear what constitutes a cakewalk--or even that Kristof's "superraptors" ever promised one--but any honest appraisal of the war would conclude that the three-week conquest of Iraq was closer to a walkover than the quagmire Kristof predicted.

Give Kristof credit: he at least admits that he was wrong, even if he wrongly insists the other side was, too. The same can't be said of many others. Even as Saddam's statue was being toppled on April 9, Salon's Joan Walsh passed immediately over the war and on to the next political clash: "We can cheer the Iraqis' liberation--and gear up to fight to make sure it's authentic, as the Pentagon draws up plans for postwar, post-Saddam Iraq."

William Raspberry's April 14 column was boldly titled "No Apologies," and he delivered:

Those who thought it was a bad idea for America to launch what was the moral equivalent of unilateral war on Iraq have nothing to apologize for. . . .

Shouldn't the prime minister and all of us who thought the war was hasty and dangerous and wrongheaded admit that we were wrong? I mean, with the pictures of those Iraqis dancing in the streets, hauling down statues of Saddam Hussein and gushing their thanks to the Americans, isn't it clear that President Bush and Britain's Tony Blair were right all along? If we believe it's a good thing that Hussein's regime has been dismantled, aren't we hypocritical not to acknowledge Bush's superior judgment?

Not at all.

Yet Walsh and Raspberry and others who opposed the war want to immediately weigh in on the next big questions. Walsh writes that

Rumsfeld wanted to fight the war "on the cheap" not because the Pentagon is broke, but because the administration's outrageous new military doctrine of preemption requires it. What good is declaring you're for preemptive protective strikes if you can't go in and prove you mean it? The new Bush doctrine required that the war in Iraq be a cakewalk, so as to send a message to our enemies in Iran, Syria, North Korea--wherever evildoers lurk--that they must tremble before our crushing military might. And if they didn't get the message, we would have enough troops and firepower left over from Iraq to deliver it more directly.

Raspberry harrumphs that

The neoconservative ideologues who brought us this war have spoken publicly and repeatedly about the need to go the rest of the way toward replacing all the Middle East dictatorships with democratic governments--whether or not we are invited to do so.

Is Syria next? Iran? Egypt?

But why should anyone take them seriously? They've been proven wrong on the question of the day and then failed to demonstrate any serious capacity for introspection. They're not public thinkers. They're not journalists. They're activists.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.