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At a campaign stop in Englewood, Colo., on Thursday, Oct. 7, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry said: “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won’t face the truth about Iraq.”
Oops, Kerry’s speechwriters had forgotten all those folks on the editorial board of the Washington Post. Surely the Kerry campaign knows that the Post’s opinionmongers cling to the original rationale for war as tightly as the president himself, and they’re not even up for re-election.
The latest example of the Post’s refusal to speak the truth to the American people came last week, when the hope of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq succumbed to yet another report. A widely anticipated investigation by Charles Duelfer, who snooped around for Iraq’s weapons programs, confuted the central prewar argument about the WMD threat from Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. There were no chemical weapons, no biological weapons, no nuclear weapons, Duelfer reported.
Along with Tony Blair and Ahmad Chalabi, the Post figured among George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s primary allies in promoting the war, so Duelfer’s report demanded an editorial response. Here’s what popped out, in part:
“Because Mr. Bush chose to act, we know what capabilities Iraq did—and did not—possess, and we’ve learned how difficult it is to occupy and attempt to reconstruct that country. What can’t be known is what would have happened had Mr. Bush chosen not to invade.”—“Weapons That Weren’t There,” Oct. 7
Now there’s a new justification for the war: Let’s sacrifice nearly 1,100 troops and $120 billion to figure out “how difficult it is” to colonize Iraq.
The Post is casting about for new post hoc war justifications because its original justification has collapsed. Here is how the paper’s editorials articulated the casus belli:
•“In the end…a war in Iraq would not be primarily a humanitarian exercise but an operation essential to American security.”—“The Case for Action,” Feb. 5, 2003
•“An outlaw dictator, in open defiance of U.N. resolutions, unquestionably possessing and pursuing biological and chemical weapons, expressing support for the Sept. 11 attacks: Surely the nation would no longer dither in the face of such a menace.”—“‘Drumbeat’ on Iraq? A Response to Readers,” Feb. 27, 2003
•“PRESIDENT BUSH last night set the United States on course for its most ambitious military campaign since the Vietnam War, one that should eliminate Saddam Hussein’s illegal arsenal of weapons and replace his brutal regime with a representative government.”—“‘A Question of Will,’” March 18, 2003
Sure, the Post deployed other arguments for Hussein’s ouster, most notably the humanitarian imperative of ridding the world of a murderous dictator. But make no mistake—the Post, like the president, hung its war argument on an imminent threat from Hussein’s Iraq.
Says Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt: “We believed Saddam had weapons, and that was certainly an important part of our reason for believing that war was justified. I think now that the Duelfer report shows that there probably were no weapons, but also that sanctions were eroding and that once the threat of force was gone, Saddam was likely to rebuild his weapons capacity.”
Other news organs have long since ’fessed up for buying into the Bush-Cheney war ideology. Mea culpas of various sorts have come from the news and editorial desks of the New York Times, the news side of the Post, and the New Republic. The stock contrition line generally has gone something like this: Hey, readers, we were too credulous in accepting administration arguments about the threat from Iraq. Sorry about that.
Such straight talk, however, is unthinkable to the Post editorial board, a group of intellectuals who see only wrinkles and complications—not their own mistakes—in the Iraq picture. It’s a mindset that yields accountability-enhancing lines like this classic:
“Success or failure in the effort to stabilize Iraq under a reasonably representative government that poses no threat to the world will provide the ultimate answer to the question of whether the war should have been undertaken.”—“Iraq in Review,” Oct. 12, 2003
Why not just write, “We at the Washington Post will continue splitting hairs for a couple of years on this critical issue, the better to avoid having to write embarrassing retractions or apologies”?
Another CYA tactic in favor at the Post is to point out that it has good company in being duped. No fewer than six editorials over the past year and a half tout the fact that the Clinton administration and several European governments had also identified Iraq as a security threat. A sample from June 2003: “If it turns out that neither the weapons nor the programs existed, the failure will be not just that of the Bush administration but of most Western politicians and intelligence experts.”
The Post’s failure to retract its cheerleading of an ill-informed war puts it in a strange pickle as the presidential election winds down: It has virtually no choice but to endorse Bush.
In recent weeks, the page has been penning a series of articles—under the banner “The Choice”—comparing the candidates’ positions on such issues as health care, the environment, and North Korea. Yet Iraq has so dominated the 2004 race that the paper will have trouble premising its endorsement on other campaign-trail issues.
If the Post wants to endorse Kerry, it will have to run an accompanying retraction of its position on the war—or perhaps just engage in more hairsplitting. Responds Hiatt: “I do not feel that we are boxed into a corner….
In my opinion, you have to look at the record and at which candidate you think would do better in the future.”
Vacating the Premises
When: Colin Powell argued to the United Nations that Hussein had WMD
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “Irrefutable.” —Feb. 6, 2003
When: U.S. forces rolled through Baghdad
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction must be identified, neutralized and displayed to the world…” —April 10, 2003
When: Cheney was starting to freak out about not finding WMD
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “[E]vidence that has surfaced so far strongly suggests that illegal weapons or weapons programs will be uncovered…” —May 4, 2003
When: Cheney was freaking out about not finding WMD
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “It still is likely that evidence of illegal weapons will be found.” —May 16, 2003
When: Cheney was really freaking out about not finding WMD
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “It still is possible—we’d say probable— that weapons will be found.” —June 4, 2003
When: Cheney’s coronary health was threatened by the WMD crisis
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “[T]he failure to find Iraqi WMD so far ought to be less of a scandal than a genuine mystery.” —June 25, 2003
When: Cheney gave up on WMD
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “[T]he failure of U.S. forces to find banned weapons is disturbing.” —July 16, 2003
When: Weapons hunter David Kay first reported no WMD finds
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “Were we wrong? The honest answer is: We don’t yet know.” —Oct. 12, 2003
When: Weapons hunter Charles Duelfer confirmed no WMD in Iraq
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote: “THE NEW REPORT from the Iraq Survey Group has confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt what most people have assumed for the past year: At the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, and most of its programs to produce them were dormant.” —Oct. 7, 2004