WEINSTEIN: The Iraq Silencers

If you supported the Iraq war, you need to shut up about foreign policy.

That’s what a lot of lefty commentators – and some righty ones – have been saying since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began conquering large swaths of Iraqi territory, catapulting Iraq to the top of America’s national security priorities. Let’s call them the “Iraq Silencers.” 

“Even if the neoconservative architects of folly are undaunted by failure and continue to stick to their guns, one might expect a reasonably rational society would pay them scant attention,” Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, who wakes up in cold sweats at night fearing what the amorphous Jewish Lobby of his imagination is plotting next, wrote for Foreign Policy magazine.

“In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while,” The Atlantic magazine’s James Fallows proffered, speaking of commentators like the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and Bush administration officials like Paul Wolfowitz who supported the 2003 Iraq war. “They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.”

“Can someone explain to me why the media still solicit advice about the crisis in Iraq from Sen. John McCain?” Nation magazine editor and Vladimir Putin fan girl Katrina Vanden Heuvel asked in The Washington Post. “Or Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)? How many times does the Beltway hawk caucus get to be wrong before we recognize that maybe, just maybe, its members don’t know what they’re talking about?”

Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, that supporting the Iraq war should make one a persona non grata to the foreign policy debate. If this is your position, it is worth considering that it wasn’t just Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney and John McCain who supported the Iraq war in 2003. Others did as well.

Others, say, like Vice President Joe Biden. Like Obama administration Secretary of State John Kerry. Like former Obama administration Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Like Obama administration Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Like Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

One could go on. But if the Iraq Silencers think supporting the Iraq war disqualifies Cheney, Kristol et al from offering their views on the current Iraq crisis – views which, by the way, are disparate, because even though you wouldn’t know it by reading the Iraq Silencers, not all those who supported the Iraq war were so-called “neoconservatives” — they should also be calling for basically the entirety of President Barack Obama’s national security team to resign.

Perhaps I’ve missed these calls.

It is indisputable that America got some things wrong in Iraq, most crucially the fact that Saddam Hussein no longer had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. If the CIA provided intelligence to that effect — instead of saying it was a “slam dunk case” — I doubt President George W. Bush would have gone to war in Iraq. It was a major intelligence failure. (And no, the Bush administration didn’t manufacture such intelligence, as I documented here).

But the war in Iraq didn’t begin and end in 2003. It went on. If the reason the Bush administration went into Iraq was because it feared terrorists teaming up with a dictator like Saddam Hussein to acquire weapons of mass destruction in the post 9/11 world, it stayed because it hoped to create a liberal democratic society in Iraq that would help transform the Middle East.

That turned out to be a bit Pollyannaish. Mistakes were obviously made in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow and Iraq erupted into brutal sectarian conflict, which was exploited by al-Qaida. But by the time President Obama was sworn into office in 2009, Iraq was pacified as result of the surge ordered by Bush. In the words of former top CIA official Mike Morell, who served as acting director of the agency twice during President Obama’s tenure in office, “Al-Qaida in Iraq was essentially defeated when the U.S. military left at the end of 2011.”

And who opposed the surge? Well, a lot of people, including President Obama and nearly everyone in his national security council, and just about everyone telling Iraq war supporters to shut up about foreign policy.

In contrast, McCain supported the surge, as did others the Iraq Silencers want to shut their mouths. Should anyone who opposed the surge be barred from speaking out about the situation in Iraq given the surge’s great success?

On this topic, the Iraq Silencers are oddly mute.

Failing to come to terms on a status of forces agreement with Iraq in 2011, the Obama administration pulled all U.S. forces out of Iraq. This was essentially keeping with Obama’s campaign pledge to end the Iraq war, even if the White House claimed it attempted to come to some type of agreement with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It was also keeping with the Democratic Party’s mockery of McCain for saying it wouldn’t be a big deal if American troops stayed in Iraq for “maybe 100 years,” clearly imagining a situation where the U.S. had bases in Iraq like it does in South Korea and Germany, not a state of perpetual combat.

At the time of America’s withdrawal from Iraq, many commentators – mainly those the Iraq Silencers want to silence – said pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq would be a disaster and that Obama should expend significant diplomatic effort, like Bush did in 2008, to come to some sort of deal with Maliki. In hindsight, many of their predictions of doom turned to out to be pretty spot on.

Should anyone who advocated for a full pullout of American troops from Iraq in 2011 be barred from commentating on Iraq today, considering the disaster the withdrawal helped lay the foundation for?

I say no.

Let journalists question lawmakers and commentators about their past positions, why they advocated them and what they wrought. But we need more debate, not less, especially on an issue as tricky as what to do in Iraq today. Silencing viewpoints isn’t a path to foreign policy success, but foreign policy failure.

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