A headline on a June 19 Style story about a New Republic editorial on the Iraq war was inaccurate. The magazine expressed regret for some of the arguments it made on the war's behalf but did not apologize or retract its support. (Published 6/22/04)
Ever since the New Republic broke with liberal orthodoxy by strongly supporting President Bush's war with Iraq, the magazine has been getting a steady stream of e-mails from readers demanding an apology.
Now the left-leaning weekly has admitted that it was wrong to have backed the war based on the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
"We feel regret, but no shame. . . . Our strategic rationale for war has collapsed," says an editorial hammered out after a contentious, 3 1/2-hour editors' meeting.
"I wanted the editorial to be honest not just about the war and other people's mistakes but our mistakes," Editor Peter Beinart says. "We felt we had a responsibility to look in the mirror."
News organizations that reported on the war and commentators who backed it have faced a similarly thorny dilemma since the failure to find illegal weapons in Iraq, along with the increasingly violent climate there. Were they wrong -- in which case they owe their readers an explanation -- or simply conveying what many officials and analysts believed at the time?
The New York Times ran an editor's note last month saying the paper's aggressive reporting on WMDs was "not as rigorous as it should have been" and overplayed stories with "dire claims about Iraq," adding: "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper."
A Washington Post editorial in October asked: "Were we wrong? The honest answer is: We don't yet know. But at this stage we continue to believe that the war was justified and necessary, and that the gains so far have outweighed the costs." Last month the editorial page was more pessimistic about the effort to stabilize Iraq, saying: "It can fairly be asked now whether that mission is achievable."
CNN commentator Tucker Carlson minced no words last week: "I am embarrassed that I supported the war in Iraq."
But most conservative publications have stuck to their editorial guns. "Yes, we still support the war, but wish the postwar had been fought better and we've been critical of the administration," says Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "We have no second thoughts about the justice and necessity of the war."
Executive Editor Fred Barnes, who visited Iraq in March, says he "came back more pessimistic than when I left. Winning the war was one thing, but winning a peaceful and democratic Iraq is a lot harder than we thought."
The New Republic's issue next week features reappraisals (with varying conclusions) by owner Martin Peretz and literary editor Leon Wieseltier, Beinart, Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum and Sens. Joe Biden and John McCain, among others.
The magazine's editorial dances up to the line of saying it was a mistake to support the war, but doesn't quite cross it.
"The central assumption underlying this magazine's strategic rationale for war now appears to have been wrong," it says. Even without nuclear or biological weapons, Hussein may have still been a threat, "but saying he was a threat does not mean he was a threat urgent enough to require war."
In fact, "waiting to confront Iraq would have allowed the United States to confront more immediate dangers. . . . Because our military is stretched so thin in Iraq, we cannot threaten military action in Iran or North Korea."
There were indications early on that some of the administration's evidence was shaky, says the editorial, and "in retrospect we should have paid more attention to these warning signs."
The New Republic then retreats to its second argument, the "moral rationale" for war against one of the "ghastliest regimes of our time." But even on this more favorable turf, the administration's mistakes, including having "winked at torture," means that "this war's moral costs have been higher than we foresaw."
John Judis, a New Republic senior editor, disagreed with the editorial and felt it should have gone further. He had argued before the war that there was insufficient evidence that Hussein posed a nuclear threat. In light of subsequent events, he says, "I feel vindication."
As for the moral case for war, Judis says, "I found Saddam Hussein's regime as abhorrent as anyone. But I thought there were a lot of historical reasons to doubt that the U.S. going it alone, or with Britain, could create a regime in the Middle East in our own image. I don't see any reason for believing that things will get better."
The battle lines for the internal debate were drawn. Beinart is a charter member of the liberal hawks club, but much of the staff is more dovish. At one point, participants say, one staffer declared that the war effort had been a total disaster, prompting an impassioned plea from others, including hawkish foreign-affairs writer Lawrence Kaplan, that they shouldn't give up hope.
Peretz, who may be the magazine's strongest supporter of the war, argued against going too far.
"I don't think the New Republic owes anybody an apology," Peretz says. "There were some things we were mistaken about, like believing there were WMDs, but my piece lays out an argument for the war independent of that mistake. These apologies are silly." But he welcomes the editorial, adding: "I would have written it slightly differently."
Among the other contributors, some, like Zakaria, admit error: "The biggest mistake I made on Iraq was to believe that the Bush administration would want to get Iraq right more than it wanted to prove that its own prejudices were right."
Wieseltier goes further than the editorial, saying flatly: "If I had known that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported this war." He says he has "come to despise" some of the officials running the war.
Others, like McCain, stand their ground: "Even if Saddam had forever abandoned his WMD ambitions, it was still right to topple the dictator."
Beinart, who in a signed column rips the conservatives who promoted the war, now contends he was misled by the administration. "I feel furious," he says. "If the administration had been less duplicitous, we and others might have recognized that Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons. . . . Maybe we were naive, but I didn't think they would lie to that extent."
Beinart still believes that things may turn out all right in Iraq. But, he concedes, "we may have to go back and do another editorial a year from now."