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The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq

Memo Pad Politics

The Siren Song Of War: Why Pundits Beat The Drums For Iraq


Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard.

First let’s consider the contrarians. Young Matthew Yglesias, who was in college at the time and thus deserves to be excused, wrote a refreshingly honest piece that noted the seductions of contrarianism: “Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.” It was easy to feel the glow of being an utterly unique snowflake, and yet at the same time to join the establishment. How special!

What Yglesias calls the“fake-dissident posture” held a powerful allure for war supporter Dan Savage as well. Reading between the lines of his stridently pro-war 2003 column, it’s clear that the anti-war types worked his last nerve. Everything about them is uncool — their posters are “sad-looking” and their slogans are cheesy. True, the left can be deeply irritating. Protests are great, but why can’t the organizers come up with better music? Yet that’s a stunningly shallow reason to support a brutal war that left over100,000 people dead.

Next up are those heroic journalists – sometimes dubbed the “Keyboard Commandos” — who wanted to re-fight World War II in Iraq. This crew saw Islam as a noxious, world-conquering ideology akin to Nazism: Islamofascism, as the late Christopher Hitchens once coined it. He and Andrew Sullivan flattered themselves as intellectual heirs of George Orwell, saving the world from both fascism and left-wing appeasers. Sullivan’s smearing of war opponents as a “fifth column” made that abundantly clear.

Paul Berman was another journalist who tirelessly refought the good war from his armchair. As he explained in a roundtable, Iraq was important because it provided an opportunity for intellectuals to “speak up.” How lovely for them! Admittedly, says Berman, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were “counterproductive in some respects,” because “for a while, they appeared to discredit the notion of liberal democracy, which was dreadful. This, apart from the deaths and suffering.” [emphasis added].

On the tape, writer David Rieff is aghast: “All this to raise the issue of liberal democracy? My God, man!” My God, indeed.

Let’s not neglect the pundits of the so-called “decent left.” Obsessed with preserving the martial virtue of the Democratic Party, these types zealously advocated a militaristic version of liberalism.  Peter Beinart, then editor of The New Republic, figured prominently in this group. To Beinart, opponents of the Iraq War were guilty of  “abject pacifism”, and he all but advocated purging them from the Democratic Party, Cold War-style. They might be liberals, but wanted the world to know they were respectable thinkers– not filthy hippies.


  1. Ed March 23, 2013

    In a nation that grew up on John Wayne and Clint Eastwood there are too many who are anxious to send someone elses sons off to war!

    1. Dominick Vila March 24, 2013

      …and kids play hero at Dave & Buster. The reason so many pundits in the so-called “liberal” media supported the war is the same reason a plurality of Americans did, overt hatred of Islam and a tendency to demonize anyone who does not look or sound like the rest of us. When a group of Islamic radicals attacked us on 9/11, many considered their nefarious act as an attack against freedom, democracy, and Christianity, and reacted accordingly.
      Interestingly, whenever an American citizen commits an act of terrorism, such as the tragedies we experience routinely, we make sure everyone knows the murderer was mentally ill. Let’s face it, we can’t possibly harbor terrorists in our society, that dubious distinction is limited to Muslims.
      The sad truth is that we have as many radical extremists as everyone else, and that it is a lot easier for them to buy the weapons they need to carry out their criminal activities in the USA than it is in many Islamic countries.
      Our response should have been directed at Al Qaeda and its affiliates, rather than against an entire culture.

  2. Mark Forsyth March 23, 2013

    All the wild cowboys in the sun,how ya sposed ta get any living done. Apologies to Mr.Zimmerman.

  3. Bill March 23, 2013

    Funny how the biggest supporters are always the people who know someone else will do the fighting while they sit back and run their mouth.

    1. JDavidS March 23, 2013

      Exactly. Witness Cheneys’ bullshit bravado or Dubya strutting around an aircraft carrier in his flight suit. Two classic examples.

      1. CPAinNewYork March 23, 2013

        Don’t forget that aircraft carrier was anchored in San Diego Bay, not anywhere near any combat zones. Ol’ Dubya wasn’t about to risk his worthless ass then any more than he did in North Vietnam, which he avoided by not showing up for his Air Force physical. Doing that made him ineligible for aerial combat in Vietnam. He could have been drafted into the Army, but we all suspect that Daddy saw to it that that didn’t happen.

        1. nobsartist March 24, 2013

          He had to hide his drug use. It would have embarrassed his coward father who was head of the CIA at the time.

          1. Richard Gadsden May 5, 2013

            That’s an unfair slur on George HW Bush; he volunteered in December 1941 and served as a Navy pilot, flying 58 combat missions.

            Also, he wasn’t head of the CIA until 1976, the year after Saigon fell. During the Vietnam years, he was a Texas Congressman, then Ambassador to the UN, then chairman of the RNC, then Ambassador to China.

  4. idamag March 23, 2013

    If all those who want to attack Iraq will join the mercenaries and go to the front lines, then they might be credible. And if all the big money who stands to get rich off war will use that money to finance the mercenaries Then all the decent, peaceful people can relax and get on with their lives.

  5. Hey I did not know you others in here were commies and enemies of the free world !
    My mistake !

    1. Sand_Cat March 26, 2013

      There’s obviously a very great deal you don’t know.

  6. gregorsam March 23, 2013

    Sullivan is flourishing, as are Klein and Matt and Friedman.

    So perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing, their current crocodile tears about having made a mistake notwithstanding.

  7. benjoya March 23, 2013

    opponents of the Iraq War were guilty of “abject pacifism”,

    yes, that’s why the massive worldwide anti-iraq war protests were merely a replay of the massive worldwide anti-afghanistan war protests. remember them? me neither.

  8. nobsartist March 24, 2013

    The wars were started as part of the republiCON jobs plan. If you remember, the economy was tanking under bush. He gave the chinese a top secret reconassaince aircraft to appease the chinese and allow his donors to ship jobs to china and then started wars to make sure his other donors had plenty of work.

    The republiCON traitors in congress refuse to pass a budget or jobs plan because they want to protect their fellow traitors like the bush crime family for instance.

    And what is even more funny, Obama wants to “look forward, not backward”.

  9. SqueakyRat March 25, 2013

    I supported military action in Afghanistan, and I stand by that. On Iraq, I was really conflicted: partially taken in by the WMD lies, terribly worried about the consequences of invasion. In retrospect, I should have done better.

    1. OhioSteve March 25, 2013

      Thanks for an honest assessment. Taken at face value, President Bush’s proclamations about Iraq and Saddam Hussein in particular made a very strong case for striking the first blow in what he explained to be an essentially unavoidable war where the question wasn’t if we would fight, but whether we would do so before or after suffering the first blow in the form of a biological/chemical/nuclear attack on our soil. While I ultimately opposed an invasion, I didn’t do so with the conviction that I now hold with the benefit of hindsight. Nobody wants to be the one advocating restraint if there is a chance that restraint may present an opening exploited by an enemy.

  10. queenmargot March 25, 2013

    Although the Bush administration told a few out and out lies, primarily they used innuendo: We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”; “We know that Iraq had (note the tense) chemical weapons.” Anyone with a half-functioning BS detector would have, at the very least, expressed some uncertainty about all this. But such skepticism would have been bad for “access” and one’s job prospects. It would have taken courage. As Aristotle said, courage is the greatest virtue because it makes all the others possible.

  11. Bill Harmon March 25, 2013

    One thing about this article troubles me: Your guesses about the pundits may all be wrong.
    On the surface that’s not so bad–after all, you’re clearly on the right side here. Funny thing is, that’s probably the same thing the pundits were thinking a decade ago.
    (For the record, I never supported the war, and am glad to see pundits held accountable. But it seems they acted more out of anger and jingoism than narcissism. If that’s so, you’re preaching to the choir instead of starting a useful discussion. The idea of seeing why the pundits got it wrong is a great one, though.)

  12. Jurgan March 26, 2013

    ” who was in college at the time and thus deserves to be excused,” Not sure how that follows- I was in college at the time and I was against the war. Now, I don’t say we have to perpetually punish those who admit their mistakes, but let’s not make excuses for them.

  13. Antidot Nyarlat March 26, 2013

    It´s sad that Christopher Hitchens got carried away by his rightful hate for organized religions and bought into this “connections to Al Qaida” crap.

    We have to remember that even islamist have a right to life as have their opponents and victims. We should not become war mongers because we have reasons to hate them.

    If two parties do the same to each other (kill, maim, burn) they become indistinguishable.

    The “West” should not ever again become like the devil we want to banish.

    Bush/Cheney are the other side of the same coin that has Bin Ladin printed on it.

    They are terrorists.


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