Unhappy Anniversary

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Last night, in honor–or perhaps dishonor–of the third anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, five respected pundits, representing a (mildly) broad swath of the political spectrum, came to Miller Theater to discuss what we did, where we are now, and what we ought to do. Our correspondent David Plotz Lecture Hops it.

Three years and two days ago, the United States invaded Iraq. Some
people commemorated this anniversary with candlelit vigils, some
with protests, and most with indifference. And then there were the
roughly 400 people who crowded into Miller Theater on Monday night
to hear five noted pundits discuss what they think about the mess
they’ve made. Moderator Joe “Anonymous” Klein was the only person
on stage who hadn’t supported the war, and even he announced his
opposition to U.S. withdrawal in the near term. And so an audience
of Morningsiders, most of whom looked to be at least 45, was treated
to a nostalgic look at a time when supporting the Iraq War was
considered an intellectually respectable position.

Indeed, for all the abuse war supporters have taken in New York and
other liberal enclaves, there was a time not so long ago when a
broad spectrum of the nation’s media establishment was urging war
for all sorts of reasons. In Washington, DC, the home of most of
the panelists (and this bwogger), support for the war was once seen
as a mark of political maturity and a commitment to liberal
internationalism, while opposition was seen as defeatist and
out-of-touch. Three years later, many pundits are scrambling to
disassociate themselves from the war, while those who opposed it
from the start are busy gloating. Yesterday’s panel provided a
rare opportunity to see the fissures among the dwindling number of
pundits who are still willing to defend their initial support.

The main conflict of the evening centered around panelist Victor
Davis Hanson, the classics scholar and National Review Online
columnist. Hanson refused to acknowledge any specific mistakes in
Iraq but made about a dozen references to colossal strategic errors
in World War II, Korea, and the Civil War, seemingly by way of
apology. Hanson’s grim, no-nonsense demeanor stood in stark
contrast to the nonsense pouring out of his mouth, which hit its
zenith when he remarked that the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay
“is safer than the Hague,” and that Serbian dictator Slobodan
Milosevic would still be alive had he been incarcerated there. Hanson
served a valuable function in the debate, as he gave Klein a chance
to score some antiwar points and everyone else a chance to look
reasonable by comparison. “There’s not going to be a civil war,”
Hanson argued at one point, “In fact, in the last three weeks, more
people were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq.” “That’s great
news!” replied Klein.

The other three panelists gave impressive performances. Kenneth
Pollack of the Brookings Institute proudly defended himself as a
“liberal interventionist,” a term which has gone out of vogue, and
shared fascinating tidbits from his work with the intelligence
community and his multiple visits to Iraq. Noah Feldman, a
constitutional law expert who worked on the Iraqi Constitution,
described the difficulties Iraq faces in creating a unified
government while chiding those who regarded the prewar situation as
stable. And Andrew Sullivan, the former New Republic
editor-in-chief, blogger and conservative gay marriage advocate,
took a genuinely emotional stand against the Bush Administration’s
use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, drawing repeated applause
from the audience. Although all three expressed some faint hope
for Iraq, all three also piled on Hanson as a proxy for Bush,
Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others, whom they denounced as criminally
negligent in their conduct of the war.

“What I didn’t count on was the appalling incompetence of this
Administration,” thundered Sullivan. “I can’t understand why
Rumsfeld hasn’t been fired yet. I can’t understand why Bush never
listened to anyone telling him to send more troops. I can’t
understand why so few of my colleagues on the right are willing to
condemn torture!”

Despite Klein’s gentle warning, “no diatribes,” most in the audience
took question time as an opportunity to launch furious rhetorical
assaults on the Administration and the panelists, often shouting
out of turn. The panelists seemed a bit taken aback, and Hanson in
particular seemed offended that anyone, on or off stage, would dare
disagree with him. Still, most of the panelists attempted to carry
on a civil and constructive discussion, touching on everything from
the likelihood of sectarian civil war to the fitness of the Iraqi

A few important topics did not get discussed. Not a single person
mentioned the word “neoconservative” or the names of any of the
major intellectual architects of the war. The diversity of opinion
among the war’s critics was likewise unrecognized, as if it was
assumed that any reasonable person must have considered supporting
the war at some point. Most of all, no one questioned whether the
United States actually has the right or the ability to enforce its
will anywhere in the world. The panel successfully reminded me
that plenty of brilliant and well-intentioned people supported the
war, and that some still do. Unfortunately, it also reminded me of
why no one was ever able to talk them out of it.

-David Plotz

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