Stephen M. Walt

How not to learn from past mistakes

If you’re still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

If you’re still wondering why the United States is in trouble these days, a good place to start is Bill Keller’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a softball attempt at self-criticism, in which Keller reflects on why he was wrong to favor war in Iraq, and it illustrates a lot of what is wrong with entire foreign policy establishment in the Land of the Free.  The tone is mildly sorrowful, but there’s only a hint of genuine regret. One gets little sense that Keller has lost much sleep over his error, and he barely acknowledges that the war he and his associates enabled left hundreds of thousands of people dead, created millions of refugees, and squandered trillions of dollars.

Instead, he tells us that his post-9/11 hawkishness came from "a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the [9/11] attack." Excuse me? I’m all for fatherly devotion, but I also expect people in a positions of authority like Keller’s to keep such feelings in check and think with their heads and not just their hearts. And did Keller ever stop to think about the Iraqi fathers and daughters whose lives would be irrevocably shattered by the U.S. invasion?

Keller makes much of the fact that lots of other liberal pundits were hawkish on the war, a group he refers to as the "I Can’t Believe I’m a Hawk Club." This defense amounts to saying "Ok, I was wrong, but so were a lot of other smart guys." What he fails to mention is that plenty of others got it right, including the thirty-three international security scholars who published a paid advertisement on Keller’s very own op-ed page on September 27, 2002. But did Keller or any other members of the Times’ editorial board reach out to them, to see if their opposition to war was well-founded? Of course not.

Finally, Keller’s reflections are silent on what the Times has done to prevent similar debacles in the future. Let’s not forget that Keller & Co. hired William Kristol, who deserves as much blame for the war as anyone, to write an op-ed column a few years back, long after the Iraq War had gone south. That little experiment didn’t work out too well, but it gives you some idea of the Times’ learning curve.

To cap it all off, turn to yesterday’s Book Review, where the cover story is neoconservative David Frum’s review of Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book on how America can get its mojo back. Frum is the former Bush speechwriter who gave us the phrase "axis of evil," and co-author (with Richard Perle) of one of the most comically over-the-top books on the "war on terror." And like Keller, Frum, Friedman and Mandelbaum were all enthusiastic Iraq War hawks too.

There you have it, folks: on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Times gave prominent place to four people who were all vocal supporters of the invasion of Iraq, a decision that did far more damage to the United States than Al Qaeda ever did. Instead of holding itself accountable for its past misjudgments and looking elsewhere for expert advice, the Times — like most of the foreign policy establishment — continues to run on autopilot and recycle the same ideologues. And if the country keeps relying on advice from those who gotten so many big things wrong in the past, why should it expect better results?

Postscript: I did not feel inclined to join the orgy of 10th anniversary reflections this past week, but I did offer a brief assessment on the Belfer Center’s website here.

 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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