May 1 2005

I Was Right All Along

You can look it up—but better not

White House officials were reportedly telling staffers that there was a “don’t gloat” policy when it came to talking about the stirrings in the Middle East (NBC Nightly News, 3/8/05; Time, 3/14/05). No such limits were placed on pundits, some of whom saw the events as proof that they were right all along to support the Iraq war.

Writing in the March 3 Los Angeles Times, conservative columnist Max Boot couldn’t help but crow. Citing a piece he had written for the Weekly Standard (2/10/03), Boot exulted: “At the time, this kind of talk was dismissed by pretty much everyone not employed by the White House as neocon nuttiness. Democracy in the Middle East? Introduced by way of Iraq? You’ve got to be kidding!” Boot posed this question: “Well, who’s the simpleton now?”

Before answering that question, it might be worthwhile to reread Boot’s old piece — which didn’t exactly sound a clarion call for democracy: “For the United States, [the invasion of Iraq] represents perhaps the last, best chance to do what it has singularly failed to do since World War II -— to provide the Middle East with effective imperial oversight.”

Boot argued that “in centuries past, the wild and unruly passions of the Islamic world were kept within tight confines by firm, often ruthless imperial authority, mainly Ottoman, but, starting in the late 19th century, increasingly British and French.” Boot went on to lament that American power was not similarly strong-willed: “America is often accused of being a bully, in the Mideast as elsewhere. Yet the record shows precious little bullying -— indeed not enough.” Now Boot would have us remember his call for a stronger imperialism as a paean to democracy.

Boot wasn’t the only pundit reflecting on his own wisdom. U.S. News & World Report columnist Michael Barone wrote in the magazine’s March 7 edition:

Nearly two years ago I wrote that the liberation of Iraq was changing minds in the Middle East. Before March 2003, the authoritarian regimes and media elites of the Middle East focused the discontents of their people on the United States and Israel. I thought the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was directing their minds to a different question: how to build a decent government and a decent society.

The column that Barone is referring to (U.S. News & World Report, 5/26/03) is indeed worth a look -— though not for the reasons he’s citing. The piece is a celebration of the pulling down of a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad -— an event, dubious at first sight (Extra!, 5-6/03), that was later revealed to have been an American PSYOPS ploy (L.A. Times, 7/3/04). Barone interpreted that U.S.-orchestrated PR stunt, involving a handful of actual Iraqis, as proof that the Arab media were entirely wrong:

Then suddenly, as the pictures of the statue being pulled down in Baghdad flashed on Al-Jazeera, it became clear that all these things were lies. Iraqis hated Saddam. There would be no titanic battle of Baghdad. As the story of the coalition victory unfolded, it became clear that the Arab media had not just gotten a few facts wrong; the picture of the world it had presented was utterly inconsistent with reality.

It’s truly odd to make a case for your own prescience by pointing to a column that depicted the statue-toppling as virtually the end of the war—when approximately 90 percent of U.S. deaths in Iraq followed that event.

Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria (3/14/05) also touted his own work, writing that Bush wisely “never accepted the view that Islamic terrorism had its roots in religion or culture or the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The view that Bush supposedly embraced instead -— that repression and a lack of modernization breed terrorism -— is, to hear Zakaria tell it, an echo of the pundit’s own views: “Three weeks after 9/11 I wrote an essay titled ‘Why Do They Hate Us?’ that made this case.”

But the idea that Zakaria’s October 15, 2001 Newsweek piece veered away from explaining terrorism in a religious context does not jibe with what he wrote: “Islam is being taken over by a small poisonous element, people who advocate cruel attitudes toward women, education, the economy and modern life in general.” He concluded that “America must now devise a strategy to deal with this form of religious terrorism,” adding that “the United States must help Islam enter the modern world” by funding “moderate Muslim groups and scholars and broadcast[ing] fresh thinking across the Arab world, all aimed at breaking the power of the fundamentalists.”

Zakaria made another observation in that column that does little to establish his reputation as a prophet: “We cannot abandon our policy of containing Saddam Hussein. He is building weapons of mass destruction.”