Hirsh: Why Can't the Pundits Be Like McClellan?

The punching bag is punching back. During his three-year stint as White House press secretary, Scott McClellan was perhaps best known for his fumbling responses to questions from TV correspondents performing for the cameras. Now, with his new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," McClellan is hitting back hard. Not only does he accuse himself and his boss, George W. Bush, of getting the War on Terror wrong, he faults the media for buying into the Iraq invasion too readily.  As McClellan writes in his preface: "History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided—that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder. No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary."

The media, for the moment, is focused on the extraordinary spectacle of a fellow Texan and Bush loyalist accusing his president of deception and incompetence. The Bush White House and its acolytes are suggesting that McClellan may have gone off his rocker. ("This is not the Scott I knew," current press secretary Dana Perino said with studied sadness today.) But the words of the supposedly "disgruntled" McClellan seem chillingly sane. And they are accurate: polls do show that most Americans have decided that the turn to Iraq was a mistake and a distraction from the real war against Al Qaeda. McClellan is also correct in recording that in the run-up to the Iraq invasion the U.S. news media were, for the most part, "complicit enablers" who focused more on "covering the march to war instead of the necessity of war."

The question I have is: why do we have to hear this from him? What's really extraordinary is how few prominent pundits and columnists have gone even half the length that McClellan has in acknowledging that they got things utterly wrong when they gave their full-throated support to Bush's still-unexplained turn toward Saddam after America's "victory" over the Taliban in Afghanistan. Consider just one example: The New York Times's Thomas L. Friedman, one of the most famous columnists in America and maybe in the world today. Here is Friedman writing on March 13, 2003, seven days before the Iraq invasion: "This war is so unprecedented that it has always been a gut call—and my gut has told me four things. First, this is a war of choice. Saddam Hussein poses no direct threat to us today. But confronting him is a legitimate choice—much more legitimate than knee-jerk liberals and pacifists think. Removing Mr. Hussein—with his obsession to obtain weapons of mass destruction—ending his tyranny and helping to nurture a more progressive Iraq that could spur reform across the Arab-Muslim world are the best long-term responses to bin Ladenism."

Many Iraq hawks have encouraged the pleasant myth that because most of the nation's most prominent pundits, like Friedman, backed Bush's shift to Saddam, everyone was equally fooled and gulled. But this is demonstrably false. Just check the record. Though they were a drowned-out minority, a small number of columnists and reporters—none of them "knee-jerk liberals" or "pacifists"—saw clearly beforehand that the Iraq invasion was a fatal distraction from the real enemy, Al Qaeda, which was known at the time to be a unique product of the anti-Soviet jihad in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, for example, is Friedman's colleague across the Times op-ed page, Maureen Dowd, writing a day earlier, March 12, 2003: "It still confuses many Americans that, in a world full of vicious slimeballs, we're about to bomb one that didn't attack us on Sept. 11 (like Osama); that isn't intercepting our planes (like North Korea); that isn't financing Al Qaeda (like Saudi Arabia); that isn't home to Osama and his lieutenants (like Pakistan); that isn't a host body for terrorists (like Iran, Lebanon and Syria)." (In case anyone is wondering, I myself was on the record calling the case for war in Iraq a "crock" during a panel discussion at Yale University on Nov. 6, 2002.) 

McClellan, far from descending into madness, seems to have embraced divine sense. In calling Iraq a blunder because it was "not necessary," he has returned the debate about war to its moral and rational origins. According to the theory of war going back to St. Augustine, "just wars" are always necessary wars. This is true even if they are waged only for humanitarian reasons (such as against Yugoslav autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in the '90s to stop ethnic cleansing). Force, in other words, may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. (Patently not the case with Saddam, who by February 2003 had opened up all his palaces and other sites to U.N. inspectors.) By contrast, to start an unnecessary war with insufficient provocation—a "war of choice"—is, almost by definition, a war crime. Indeed, Count 2 of the indictment at the Nuremberg war crimes trial in 1945 cited "crimes against peace including planning, preparing, starting or waging aggressive war." This seems uncomfortably close to what America did in Iraq, especially if Saddam was, as Friedman wrote, known to be deterrable and pose "no direct threat to us today."

But let's not heap all the blame on Tom Friedman. There are many other prominent pundits who have failed to make commensurate confessions. They know who they are. This is more than a matter of correcting the historical record—or even purging a few guilty souls. Though many Americans have come out against the Iraq War, too many still seem confused about exactly why it was the wrong approach to the challenge of 9/11. A few prominent admissions, like the one we've heard already from Peter Beinart in his book "The Good Fight," would help the national debate immeasurably. And perhaps help to guide us to a clearer consensus on how long we need to stay in Iraq now that we are there (which should be another debate entirely). And today, with more than 4,000 American families bereaved of their young, with tens of thousands more Americans living out the nightmare of lives without limbs or faces or with other disabilities, with tens of thousands Iraqis suffering similar fates—and with Afghanistan so unfinished—is it really too much to ask of these able-bodied pundits to acknowledge that they were complicit in one of the great strategic disasters in American history?

Scott McClellan seems to have undergone a genuine reckoning with himself, one that has eluded many of the lords of the media. In the opening words of his book McClellan notes that carved above the south entrance to the tower at the University of Texas—where McClellan went as an undergraduate and where his grandfather was dean of the law school—is a quote from the Gospel of John: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." He writes of those famous words: "Not until the past few years have I come to truly appreciate their message. Perhaps God's greatest gift to us in life is the ability to learn from our experiences, especially our mistakes, and grow into better people." Better pundits, perhaps, are too much to ask for.

Join the Discussion