Cheney's chutzpah and the public debate over Iraq

Do read the new column from E. J. Dionne about "Dick Cheney's Chutzpah," because it's as angry as even-tempered E. J. ever gets. And with good reason. In a field crowded with shameless hawks, cheering for more military action in Iraq while ignoring the consequences of their past enthusiasm for war, Dick Cheney stands out as perhaps the most shameless of all. He and his daughter Liz wrote an op-ed for yesterday's Wall Street Journal, published with a subheadline that left even the most cynical liberals sputtering:

(To be fair, it does say "rarely," which you might read as a concession that it has happened before.)

Is Dick Cheney in any position to be lecturing Barack Obama about fecklesness in foreign policy? Of course not. But his motives for doing so are clear enough. He, like many of the other neocons and Bush-era hawks now pointing fingers at Obama, has a reputation to think about, and a deep investment in shifting the blame for the mess in Iraq onto someone else's shoulders. Embracing a revisionist history of Bush-era foreign policy could have dreadful consequences for most Americans, and especially for the men and women in the military -- not to mention for the people of Iraq and neighboring countries. But it can only be good for Dick Cheney. Here's Dionne on how they'd like the debate to be rigged:

Thanks to the Cheney op-ed, we can see how Obama’s hawkish critics are out to create a double standard. Whenever they are called out for how mistaken they were about Iraq in the first place, they piously lecture against “relitigating the past” and say we must instead look forward. At the same time, many of them feel perfectly free to trash the president in extreme and even vile terms.

A lot of liberals and media types have spoken up in exasperation after watching unreformed and unreflective hawks like John McCain, Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, and so on appear on the Sunday-morning shows and on op-ed pages as if they were still respected authorities, with no hard questions about the disastrously wrong predictions they made so confidently before the (last) invasion of Iraq. James Fallows says: "we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrong.... we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while." (He links to a lot of other people making similar arguments, including our own Andrew Bacevich -- and, yes, go read that now if you haven't already.)

Meanwhile, at Salon, Jim Newell makes the important point that these people -- the "extremist neocon dunces" -- are not just discredited, they are also very far out of the mainstream: a second reason they shouldn't have such prominence in debates over how to clean up the mess they won't admit to having helped make.

Maybe a hawk arguing for airstrikes against Iraq might qualify as representing a legitimate “side” in the debate, making a case on behalf of a significant — but not that large, honestly — subset of the American people. But ground troops, with an open-ended commitment? This is a yahoo opinion. The opinion of a nut. The guy out on the street, screaming about how outer space aliens did 9/11. You don’t ever see that guy on “Meet the Press.” And yet there’s probably a greater audience of people out there who believe outer space aliens did 9/11 than there is of people who believe reinvading Iraq is a legitimate option right now.

Jonathan Chait, who favored the war in 2002 and later repented, now protests that this "shut up and go away" imperative is an excuse for liberals not to take up the harder questions about what to do.  Fair enough. My own opinion is that those of us reluctant to rush into another bombing-and-possibly-ground-troops situation should be less focused on getting someone like Bill Kristol to go away than we should on getting journalists to do their jobs better this time around. So talk to Kristol, by all means, but when you do, be sure to ask him what he has to say for himself now that he has been proven wrong so many times over. That sort of reckoning could contribute positively to figuring out what course of action might prove less disastrous now. Watching journalists fail to do that, however, is like watching a horror movie for a lot of people who remember the runup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then, people who opposed the invasion or questioned the administration's case for war were marginalized and attacked, while people like Kristol and McCain and Wolfowitz dedicated themselves to making a case for war that turned out to be, at best, misbegotten, and at worst an outright pack of lies. So you can hardly blame them for being horrified that it seems like the same thing could happen all over again. [Update: read Paul Waldman on that point:

Is there a bit of over-enthusiasm with which people like me are attacking the return of the Iraq War caucus? Maybe. Part of it comes from the fact that a decade ago, those of us who were right about the whole thing were practically called traitors because we doubted that Iraq would turn out to be a splendid little war. And part of it comes from the fact that the band of morons who sold and executed the worst foreign policy disaster in American history not only didn't receive the opprobrium they deserved, they all did quite well for themselves.]

Chait is right that "ignore the hawks" is not a sufficient approach to debating what Obama should do. "Grill the hawks" would be much better. But best would be to seek out the people who were right, or at least not completely wrong, last time around.

If David Frum has a good idea this time, but no one will listen to it? I can live with that, as long as it's because the media is busy talking to other people who also have good ideas and the benefit of less tarnished credibility.

Meanwhile, Cheney met hard questioning on, of all places, Fox News, where Megyn Kelly wondered if maybe he wasn't the best person to be blaming Obama for the mess in Iraq. And she had done her homework -- this was no generalized, gentle "Wouldn't you say mistakes were made?" line of questioning. She quoted him. She had specific errors in mind. "Now," she concluded, "with almost a trillion dollars spent there, with 4,500 American lives lost there, what do you say to those who say you were so wrong about so much at the expense of so many?"

Attention, television journalists: this is what you should be doing. But please also note how Cheney responded: "I just fundamentally disagree.... You've got to go back and look at the track record. We inherited a situation where there was no doubt in anybody's mind about the extent of Saddam's involvement in weapons of mass destruction."

That is simply false. A lot of somebodies had doubts in their minds. In the run-up to the invasion, they were derided and shouted down and ignored. What possible excuse could there be for allowing that to happen again?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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