The Shame and the Sorrow

Like the Bourbons, famously described by Talleyrand as having learned nothing and forgotten nothing, the neocons have few regrets over the widening debacle in Iraq. Oh, some have published limited mea culpas, but these are merely extended exercises in excuse-making, and don’t really confront the intrinsic folly of the policy that guided our actions. The policy wasn’t carried out consistently, they complain: the problem, says Bill Kristol, the little Lenin of the War Party, was not in the principle of global interventionism, but in its implementation in Iraq. William F. Buckley, Jr., similarly admits no error in principle, but tries to pass the blame to the Iraqis, who, it seems, are insufficiently grateful that their country has been "liberated" into a pile of bloodstained rubble. This pass-the-buck approach to the question of what went wrong is shared by Richard Perle, who opines:

"The military campaign and its political aftermath were both passionately debated within the Bush administration. It got the war right and the aftermath wrong. We should have understood that we needed Iraqi partners."

Meaning we should have invaded and immediately handed power over to Ahmed Chalabi – no doubt as a reward for supplying the administration with so many lies about Iraq’s fabled "weapons of mass destruction" that, by the time anyone got around to debunking them all, we were already waist-deep in the Iraqi quagmire.

As the most brazenly unapologetic of the neocons, Perle really takes the cake: his idea of the great lesson of the Iraq invasion and the phony "intelligence" that served as a pretext is that we can’t wait around too long before we attack Iran. Reuters reports his latest pronouncement:

"Richard Perle, a key architect of the U.S.-led war against Iraq, said on Saturday the West should not make the mistake of waiting too long to use military force if Iran comes close to getting an atomic weapon.

"’If you want to try to wait until the very last minute, you’d better be very confident of your intelligence because if you’re not, you won’t know when the last minute is,’ Perle told Reuters on the sidelines of an annual security conference in Munich. ‘And so, ironically, one of the lessons of the inadequate intelligence of Iraq is you’d better be careful how long you choose to wait.’

"Perle said Israel had chosen not to wait until it was too late to destroy the key facility Saddam Hussein’s secret nuclear weapons programme in Osirak, Iraq in 1981. The Israelis decided to bomb the Osirak reactor before it was loaded up with nuclear fuel to prevent widespread radioactive contamination. ‘I can’t tell you when we may face a similar choice with Iran. But it’s either take action now or lose the option of taking action.’"

Since all intelligence is unreliable, it is better to act than to refrain from attacking – because, as Perle and his fellow snakes constantly hiss, in the post-9/11 era we can’t afford to make mistakes. In the Bizarro World of the neocons, where morality as well as logic is inverted, uncertainty is precisely the reason we need a policy of preemption. In the world of the rest of us, however, it is precisely this uncertainty that makes the Bush Doctrine morally suspect and practically unworkable. What we might term the Perle principle is a recipe for perpetual war – and that just about sums up the entire neoconservative program, now doesn’t it?

Others of this tribe, however, are a bit more contrite. Here we have Andrew Sullivan, who rallied the War Party in the run-up to the invasion with accusations that Iraq was behind the post-9/11 anthrax scare, beating his breast:

"The world has learnt a tough lesson, and it has been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis … than for a few humiliated pundits. The correct response is not more spin but a sense of shame and sorrow."

This comes close to a real apology, but, read in context with the rest of his Time essay, still doesn’t quite make the grade as a full-fledged act of contrition. Because, as he makes all too clear, he still doesn’t understand why he was wrong – nor does he clearly admit he was wrong to begin with. According to Sullivan, he and his fellow neocons made three major errors:

"The first was to overestimate the competence of government, especially in very tricky areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an overestimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. When doubts were raised, they were far too swiftly dismissed. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war’s legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed."

Overestimating the competence of government seems an awfully odd mistake for an ostensible "conservative" to make, and one can’t help wondering if some factor that goes unmentioned by Sullivan had a hand in making him and his ilk especially prone to the pitfalls of "a deeply fallible system." Nor can one help but speculate as to what the introduction of outright forgeries into the U.S. intelligence stream tells us about how deeply compromised our intelligence-gathering system was (and no doubt still is). Yes, we are all of us fallible: but, as it turns out, some of us are liarsand worse.

"The second error was narcissism. America’s power blinded many of us to the resentments that hegemony always provokes. Those resentments are often as deep among our global friends as among our enemies – and make alliances as hard as they are important. That is not to say we should never act unilaterally. Sometimes the right thing to do will spawn backlash, and we should do it anyway. But that makes it all the more imperative that when we do go out on a limb, we get things right. In those instances, we need to make our margin of error as small as humanly possible. Too many in the Bush Administration, alas, did the opposite. They sent far too few troops, were reckless in postinvasion planning and turned a deaf ear to constructive criticism, even from within their own ranks. Their abdication of the moral high ground, by allowing the abuse and torture of military detainees, is repellent. Their incompetence and misjudgments might be forgiven. Their arrogance and obstinacy remain inexcusable."

Sullivan denouncing arrogance, obstinacy, and narcissism – it’s like the Devil detailing the wages of sin. Are we to be spared nothing? He gets up on his high horse and reels off examples of the Bush administration’s incompetence, but on the subject of his own misjudgments he is strangely silent. Or, perhaps, not so strangely: of all the public intellectuals now polluting the "mainstream" media with their extravagant self-regard, perhaps only a few – Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol come immediately to mind – surpass Sullivan in the hubris department.

Sullivan’s appeal to the "incompetence" angle shows that there is no shame, no real remorse, for having led us all down the garden path: according to his lights, he was right, in principle – it was only in the execution that the administration got it all wrong. Instead of regretting that we ever sent our troops into the Iraqi maelstrom, Andrew opines that we sent too few. This is a reiteration of the current Democratic Party talking point, one that the pro-war Hillary Clinton has given voice to along with Joe Biden and the other DLC clones. Sullivan, who came out for Kerry in ’04, demonstrates here the free-floating opportunism that characterizes the neoconservative personality. Party loyalty – or, indeed, loyalty of any sort – doesn’t enter into it.

Sullivan is to be commended for his vocal and persistent criticism of an administration that believes it has the right to torture in the name of "freedom," yet he fails to confront the rather obvious fact that such odious practices flow logically from the scale and very nature of the military project we’ve undertaken. Some of us foresaw that the occupation of Iraq would mirror the Israeli occupation of Palestine, albeit on a grand scale – and, in this light, one can hardly have been surprised by Abu Ghraib. Suicide bombers, growing-sectarian strife, and the entry of al-Qaeda on the Iraqi stage – all of it was predictable, and, indeed, all of those consequences of the invasion were predicted by opponents of intervention. In admitting that he was wrong, Sullivan, you’ll note, nowhere acknowledges that war critics were in any way right: I suppose he is sticking by his contention, made early in the Iraq debate, that opponents of this war were part of a pro-terrorist "fifth column." About that, you can bet your bottom dollar he feels not one iota of "shame and sorrow."

The shame and the sorrow of Andrew Sullivan is rooted in an overwhelming conceit, a sense of entitlement combined with a hubris that knows no earthly bounds – characteristics that are part of the shared values of our elites, in journalism as well as government. These people believe they are fated to rule the world, and that they have every right to decide the fate of entire peoples: they treat the world like a kind of global sandbox. As the young American giant plays at empire-building, the rest of the world must suffer through his mistakes, while it is the role of Sullivan and his fellow Deep Thinkers to solemnly list their regrets and shift the blame to others – without, of course, ever saying "sorry." They are incapable of a simple apology, and it would never occur to them that a tactful silence on matters of foreign policy might be in order for the immediate future. A big problem for people like Sullivan and his ilk is that they just don’t know when to shut up: as they chatter away, they reveal too much, and, in doing so, lose whatever credibility they once had.

Sullivan mentions the growing conservative disenchantment with Bush’s Iraqi adventure, naming William F. Buckley, Francis Fukuyama, and George Will – but ungraciously fails to note those conservatives, like Pat Buchanan, who opposed the war from the start. That’s because Sullivan would rather die than admit a social conservative could ever be right about anything, never mind regarding an issue on which he has been so spectacularly wrong.

I’ll spare my readers any further analysis of Sullivan’s semantic twists and turns, except to note that, in conclusion, we are told:

"War is always, in the end, a matter of flexibility and will. And sometimes the darkest days are inevitable – even necessary – before the sky ultimately clears."

Translation: Tomorrow is another day. Tara may be lost, but the Scarlett O’Hara of the War Party is hopeful that we can pull it all off if only we face the new day with sufficient "will."

Sullivan’s will to power will kill us all, if it doesn’t bankrupt us first: it has already slaughtered as many as 100,000 Iraqis, as well as 2,300 or so of our own, with the prospect of many more deaths to come. How many more will be sacrificed for the sake of the neocons’ monumental conceit?


My article, "Hillary the Hawk," is the cover piece in the current (March 27) issue of The American Conservative. No, I don’t think they’ll put it online, so get thee to your local news stand and get yourself a copy. I have to take the opportunity to say that TAC is the best political magazine out there, and not only because I am a contributing editor, and agree with most of their editorial stances, but also because it is so consistently interesting. The current issue has editor Scott McConnell on the neoconservatives and Iran, Leon Hadar on Dubai-phobia (including a discussion of’s libertarian stance on the issue), and the heroic James Bovard on how Dick Cheney has become a law unto himself. Plus Pat Buchanan on how we aren’t quite up to this Empire game, a lead review by Lew Rockwell of Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis by William Bonner and Addison Wiggin, and the inimitable Taki on the latest eruption of Ugly Americanism. You won’t want to miss it.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].