Politics & Policy

Presidential Projection

Shamelessly, Joe Klein attacks a war he once supported.

On Tim Russert’s MSNBC program this weekend, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, in offering praise for Senator Clinton, said this:

And the most basic thing is, she’s not going to go crazy on you. She’s not going to do – she’s not going to go invade Iraq, you know, preemptively.

This echoes what Klein has said elsewhere. For example, in his November 13, 2007, blog posting, Klein wrote this:

The war in Iraq has been a disaster, the stupidest foreign policy decision ever made by an American President.

Based on what Klein has said, then, you’d think he was a relentless, principled, vocal, and long-standing critic of the Iraq war long before it began. But you would be wrong. Here’s what Klein told Tim Russert on his program on February 22, 2003 — less than a month before Operation Iraqi Freedom began:

This is a really tough decision. War may well be the right decision at this point. In fact, I think it—it’s—it—it probably is…. [Saddam] has been defying the world for twelve years. It is very clear—I mean, I—I—I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t believe that he’s hiding stuff there. And if there’s going to be a civilized world order, the—the world has to be able to act on its—you know, on—on—on its agreements. And—and there have been now seventeen UN resolutions calling on this guy to disarm, a—something that he agreed to do, and at certain—at a certain point, you have to enforce it.Now you can quibble with the fact, you can argue with the fact that the Bush administration forced this judgment at this time in this way, but I think—and—but I—but I do believe that it was Bill Clinton’s moral responsibility and responsibility as leader of the country to do it in 1998, as we—as we were saying before. And—and I think that now that we’ve reached this point, where the inspectors are in and it has become absolutely manifestly clear that he’s not going to abide by this—you know, just look at his behavior in the days since the peace protests. All of a sudden, you know, he’s—he’s—you know, he’s defiant again. So I think that, you know, the—the message has to be sent because if it isn’t sent now, if we don’t do this now, it empowers every would-be Saddam out there and every would-be terrorist out there.

Klein seems to think that the more vehemently he criticizes the president and his decision to go to war, the more likely people will be to think that Klein was a stand-up guy in opposition to it. And this approach might work — if not for something called “transcripts.”

It’s certainly fine if Klein has changed his views on the Iraq war; obviously many people have (the Senate passed the use of force resolution by a vote of 77-23, with Hillary Clinton voting in favor of the resolution, and a strong majority of the country supported the war before it began). And it’s certainly legitimate to criticize the postwar (Phase IV) part of the war, which was massively mishandled by the Bush administration in which I served. It’s also legitimate for Klein to praise the president for wisely embracing the surge, which in January 2007 Klein referred to as “Bush’s futile pipe dream.” Yet in condemning the decision to go to war as he does, Klein condemns mostly himself. Joe Klein circa 2003 was admirably and honestly struggling with the pros and cons of war before saying he thought it was probably the right decision. Klein circa 2007 and 2008 speaks in simplistic, Manichean terms.

In the first volume of his memoirs, The White House Years, Henry Kissinger wrote that “one of the President’s most difficult tasks is to choose among endless arguments that sound equally convincing. The easy decisions do not come to him; they are taken care of at lower levels.”

Just so. And while I understand that the revolving door between government and journalism can pose problems, it might once in a while be useful if pundits who consider themselves sagacious and all-wise had actually been involved in governing instead of simply and endlessly commenting on it. There also happens to be a good deal more accountability in governing than in punditry (beginning with elections).

It would be a step in the right direction if Klein forthrightly admitted that he once supported a war that he now refers to as “crazy” and “the stupidest foreign policy decision every made by an American President.”

One other thing worth noting: elsewhere in his interview with Russert, Klein refers to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as “really shameless.” Perhaps this is an example of what psychologists refer to as projection.

– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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