Neoconservatives, the Iraq Debate and Ad Hominem Attacks

While those who advocated for the Iraq War were wrong, ad hominem attacks make for poor debate.

The stunning success of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham has renewed American interest in a country where we fought almost continuously for over two decades before pulling the plug in December 2011. Suddenly, old debates have begun again and new ones have arisen as to "who lost Iraq" and what, if anything, the United States should do about it.

On our television screens and op-ed pages, some familiar faces and names have again been talking about Iraq, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer, along with various neocon pols and pundits who never went away. Some are now arguing that, having gotten Iraq so spectacularly wrong the last time, these people should not be listened to now. That idea is both misguided and dangerous.

In full disclosure, while I had an infinitesimal fraction of the impact on the public debate as those in question, I was among those who got Iraq wrong in 2003. I was the reverse John Kerry, in that I was opposed to the war before supporting it. The early arguments made by Wolfowitz and company, focusing on Saddam's evil character and his long past use of chemical weapons against his own people, struck me as a poor justification for war. Despite having opposed virtually every significant U.S. military intervention of the past quarter century, though, I was eventually persuaded that regime change in Iraq was necessary. In the wake of North Korea joining the nuclear club and the sudden dwindling of American options on the Peninsula, I believed a nuclear-empowered Saddam was an unacceptable risk.

While I've long since acknowledged that the war was a mistake and eschewed the nation-building campaign almost from its outset, it took me longer than most who write under the TNI masthead to advocate withdrawal, for a variety of reasons too complicated and tangential to this column to go into here.

Regardless, I supported President Obama's decision to follow through on the withdrawal timetable negotiated by his predecessor and assign almost none of the blame for what's going wrong in Iraq now to him. Furthermore, I almost always disagree with those in question on their instinct for muscular American military intervention in virtually every crisis anywhere on the globe. Regardless, I believe most of them to have something valuable to contribute to the debate.

Quite a few otherwise-sober analysts disagree.

James Fallows, the eminent journalist and author who served as President Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, threw down the gauntlet weeks ago via Twitter: "Working hypothesis: no one who stumped for original Iraq invasion gets to give ‘advice’ about disaster now. Or should get listened to."

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn chimed in, "Like his neocon comrades—Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan, and others—Wolfowitz does not deserve to be presented as an expert with important ideas about the ongoing mess. He and the rest of this gang should have had their pundit licenses revoked after the Iraq War."

Paul Waldman, an editor at The American Prospect and a Washington Post contributor, makes a more nuanced version of the argument, declaring, "there are few people who understand Iraq less than the Republican politicians and pundits who are being sought out for their comments on the current situation." He singles out for particular scorn John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kristol, cautioning, "Don’t forget what happened the last time the country listened to them."

That's fair enough, particularly since none of the three have any special insights to add to the conversation. Kristol, in particular, despite a PhD in government from Harvard, is simply a pundit with no substantive or regional expertise. But, frankly, that's true of most politicians and pundits being interviewed on television, not just the Republicans. And note that Waldman and company don't make the same argument about Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and scores of Democratic pols and pundits who also got Iraq wrong.

Huffington Post senior media reporter and NYU adjunct professor Michael Calderone laments that "Bremer and others who were largely discredited when it comes to Iraq are back in the spotlight, and they're being treated as credible experts on the growing chaos in the country." Among said "others" are Paul Wolfowitz, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Douglas Feith, Andrew Carr, and even former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Nor is the argument being advanced solely by Democratic partisans.