New Republic Editors 'Regret'
Their Support of Iraq War
By Howard Kurtz
Post - June 19, 2004; Page C01: Ever
since the New Republic broke with liberal orthodoxy by strongly
supporting President Bush's war with Iraq, the magazine has been
getting a steady stream of e-mails from readers demanding an apology.
the left-leaning weekly has admitted that it was wrong to have backed
the war based on the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein was
hiding weapons of mass destruction.
"We feel regret, but no
shame. . . . Our strategic rationale for war has collapsed," says an
editorial hammered out after a contentious, 3 1/2-hour editors' meeting.
wanted the editorial to be honest not just about the war and other
people's mistakes but our mistakes," Editor Peter Beinart says. "We
felt we had a responsibility to look in the mirror."
organizations that reported on the war and commentators who backed it
have faced a similarly thorny dilemma since the failure to find illegal
weapons in Iraq, along with the increasingly violent climate there.
Were they wrong -- in which case they owe their readers an explanation
-- or simply conveying what many officials and analysts believed at the
The New York Times ran an editor's note last month
saying the paper's aggressive reporting on WMDs was "not as rigorous as
it should have been" and overplayed stories with "dire claims about
Iraq," adding: "Editors at several levels who should have been
challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too
intent on rushing scoops into the paper."
A Washington Post
editorial in October asked: "Were we wrong? The honest answer is: We
don't yet know. But at this stage we continue to believe that the war
was justified and necessary, and that the gains so far have outweighed
the costs." Last month the editorial page was more pessimistic about
the effort to stabilize Iraq, saying: "It can fairly be asked now
whether that mission is achievable."
CNN commentator Tucker Carlson minced no words last week: "I
am embarrassed that I supported the war in Iraq."
most conservative publications have stuck to their editorial guns.
"Yes, we still support the war, but wish the postwar had been fought
better and we've been critical of the administration," says Bill
Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "We have no second thoughts
about the justice and necessity of the war."
Editor Fred Barnes, who visited Iraq in March, says he "came back more
pessimistic than when I left. Winning the war was one thing, but
winning a peaceful and democratic Iraq is a lot harder than we thought."
New Republic's issue next week features reappraisals (with varying
conclusions) by owner Martin Peretz and literary editor Leon
Wieseltier, Beinart, Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, New
York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Washington Post columnist Anne
Applebaum and Sens. Joe Biden and John McCain, among others.
The magazine's editorial dances up to the line of saying it
was a mistake to support the war, but doesn't quite cross it.
central assumption underlying this magazine's strategic rationale for
war now appears to have been wrong," it says. Even without nuclear or
biological weapons, Hussein may have still been a threat, "but saying
he was a threat does not mean he was a threat urgent enough to require
In fact, "waiting to confront Iraq would have allowed
the United States to confront more immediate dangers. . . . Because our
military is stretched so thin in Iraq, we cannot threaten military
action in Iran or North Korea."
There were indications
early on that some of the administration's evidence was shaky, says the
editorial, and "in retrospect we should have paid more attention to
these warning signs."
The New Republic then retreats to its
second argument, the "moral rationale" for war against one of the
"ghastliest regimes of our time." But even on this more favorable turf,
the administration's mistakes, including having "winked at torture,"
means that "this war's moral costs have been higher than we foresaw."
Judis, a New Republic senior editor, disagreed with the editorial and
felt it should have gone further. He had argued before the war that
there was insufficient evidence that Hussein posed a nuclear threat. In
light of subsequent events, he says, "I feel vindication."
for the moral case for war, Judis says, "I found Saddam Hussein's
regime as abhorrent as anyone. But I thought there were a lot of
historical reasons to doubt that the U.S. going it alone, or with
Britain, could create a regime in the Middle East in our own image. I
don't see any reason for believing that things will get better."
battle lines for the internal debate were drawn. Beinart is a charter
member of the liberal hawks club, but much of the staff is more dovish.
At one point, participants say, one staffer declared that the war
effort had been a total disaster, prompting an impassioned plea from
others, including hawkish foreign-affairs writer Lawrence Kaplan, that
they shouldn't give up hope.
Peretz, who may be the magazine's strongest supporter of the
war, argued against going too far.
don't think the New Republic owes anybody an apology," Peretz says.
"There were some things we were mistaken about, like believing there
were WMDs, but my piece lays out an argument for the war independent of
that mistake. These apologies are silly." But he welcomes the
editorial, adding: "I would have written it slightly differently."
the other contributors, some, like Zakaria, admit error: "The biggest
mistake I made on Iraq was to believe that the Bush administration
would want to get Iraq right more than it wanted to prove that its own
prejudices were right."
Wieseltier goes further than the
editorial, saying flatly: "If I had known that there are no weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported this war." He says
he has "come to despise" some of the officials running the war.
like McCain, stand their ground: "Even if Saddam had forever abandoned
his WMD ambitions, it was still right to topple the dictator."
who in a signed column rips the conservatives who promoted the war, now
contends he was misled by the administration. "I feel furious," he
says. "If the administration had been less duplicitous, we and others
might have recognized that Saddam didn't have nuclear weapons. . . .
Maybe we were naive, but I didn't think they would lie to that extent."
still believes that things may turn out all right in Iraq. But, he
concedes, "we may have to go back and do another editorial a year from