Zakaria, Libya and Iraq: Don’t Remember What I Wrote

Fareed Zakaria cheers the Libya War in Time magazine this week for not following the Iraq model:

It has been prosecuted with the memory of the Iraq war firmly in mind. Only this time the approach has been to view the last war as a negative example. The international coalition–and even the Libyan opposition–is doing pretty much the opposite of what was done in Iraq.

Zakaria explains that Obama “was clearly trying to avoid the mistakes of Iraq.” Among the mistakes the Bush administration made:

Had UN weapons inspectors been given more time in the spring of 2003, the UN Security Council might well have endorsed the plan. Countries like India were seriously considering sending tens of thousands of peacekeeping troops, but only if there was a UN-blessed operation with a U.S. commander who also wore a UN hat (as was the case in Bosnia). But these were seen as petty, legalistic annoyances, and the operation felt like an American one from start to finish.

Zakaria can write these things because his message during the run-up to the Iraq War was, “Let the inspections do their work!”

Not exactly.

In the December 2, 2002 Newsweek, Zakaria warned that the inspectors weren’t likely to find weapons because Iraq had gotten so good at hiding their WMDs:

Having gotten the inspectors back into Iraq with unfettered access, the Bush administration had better brace itself for the most likely outcome–they will find nothing. Don’t get me wrong. Iraq is surely producing weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations and the United States have accumulated powerful evidence of this over the past decade, including testimony from Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, about Iraq’s biological weapons. But Iraq has become increasingly expert at dispersing and hiding these facilities, which are often small enough to fit into a bathroom or a van.

Zakaria explained that “the administration must force a crisis”–using the inspections as a way to force the war to begin:

Washington’s hope is that in one of these many tests, Iraq will reveal that it is not cooperating and thus pave the way for military action. The inspectors will not find weapons but they might well find noncompliance.

Time is short. If events do not come to a head soon after December 8, the pressure for action will dissipate and the weather will make conflict impossible until next fall. And you cannot replay this movie.

A few weeks later (2/17/03), Zakaria was worried that the United States might lose face. He asked Newsweek readers to imagine what kind of world it would be if inspections were allowed to drag on just because some other countries demanded solid evidence:

But right now with Iraq, the need to maintain resolve seems obvious. Whatever one’s initial views about taking on Iraq–and I have been for it–I cannot see how America can back down without damaging its, well, credibility.

Imagine the situation. A week from now, pressured by France, Germany and Russia, the United States decides to give the inspectors more time. It announces that, come to think of it, Saddam isn’t that much of a threat. Though the president of the United States has said repeatedly that he would have “zero tolerance” for Iraqi deception, he didn’t really mean it. When Colin Powell persuaded the United Nations to pass a resolution telling Saddam that he had a “final” opportunity to disarm or face “serious consequences,” it was a bluff. (The “serious consequences” turn out to be that the United Nations sends in a few dozen more inspectors.) What would happen the next time the United States makes threats?

Luckily for people like Zakaria, damaged credibility isn’t a concern for them. He’ll still be considered an A-list foreign affairs pundit, no matter how wrong he’s been about things that really matter.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.