On Iraq, Plenty of Scores to Settle Even If the Dust Hasn't

Jabs from the left came from Paul Krugman, top, and David Corn; from the right, even William Buckley, below, said
Jabs from the left came from Paul Krugman, top, and David Corn; from the right, even William Buckley, below, said "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed." (By William Thomas Cain For The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

For some liberal pundits, it's payback time.

For some conservative commentators, it's time for uncomfortable explanations.

For the rest of us, it's the best show in town.

It was probably inevitable, once the Iraq war started to go badly -- though how badly remains a matter of political dispute -- that those who opposed it from the start would begin kicking sand in the face of those who backed it from the start. Had the war been a smashing success, accusing fingers would undoubtedly be pointing in the opposite direction.

Some of those on the right now say they were wrong, or that they miscalculated, or that the Bush administration has bungled what remains a noble effort. Others insist the war is not going all that badly, given the difficulty of bringing democracy to Iraq, and that history's verdict is not yet in.

But this is no high-minded debate about military strategy and ancient religious hatreds. It is an old-fashioned smackdown by those who detest George W. Bush against those who once defended him.

Andrew Sullivan, the author and blogger, wrote in Time that he and his fellow neoconservatives made "three huge errors" in underestimating the difficulty of invading Iraq three years ago this week. "We have learned a tough lesson," Sullivan wrote, "and it has been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis and several thousand killed and injured American soldiers than for a few humiliated pundits."

This drew a blast from Paul Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist, who wrote: "Mr. Sullivan used to specialize in denouncing the patriotism and character of anyone who dared to criticize President Bush, whom he lionized. Now he himself has become a critic, not just of Mr. Bush's policies, but of his personal qualities, too. . . .

"If you're a former worshipful admirer of George W. Bush who now says, as Mr. Sullivan did at Cato, that 'the people in this administration have no principles,' you're taking a courageous stand. If you said the same thing back when Mr. Bush had an 80 percent approval rating, you were blinded by Bush-hatred. If you're a former hawk who now concedes that the administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq, you're to be applauded for your open-mindedness. But if you warned three years ago that the administration was hyping the case for war, you were a conspiracy theorist."

Sullivan conceded that he "lionized George W. Bush for a while after 9/11" and "criticized many whose knee-jerk response immediately after 9/11 was to blame America, and whose partisanship, like Krugman's, was so intense they had already deemed Bush a failure before he even had a chance." But he accused Krugman of "grossly distorting" his record, noting that he has criticized Bush on a wide range of issues, from Abu Ghraib to federal spending, and endorsed John Kerry in 2004.

A similar squabble erupted after National Review founder William F. Buckley, the intellectual godfather of modern conservatism, wrote that Bush must face reality: "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. . . . And the administration has, now, to cope with failure."

David Corn, the Nation's Washington bureau chief, used the concession to jab at Rich Lowry, National Review's editor, for having said while debating him that opponents of the war were enemies of democracy and freedom. "How can he not apply the same label to Buckley?" Corn demanded, adding: "If one side is willing to accuse the other of being weak, treasonous, and fans of tyranny, it is difficult to have a decent discourse."

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