Arianna Huffington thinks we're all being too harsh on Newt Gingrich for his apparent about-face on Iraq. When a Sioux Falls newspaper reported earlier this week that Gingrich was advocating a "pullback" in Iraq, the blogsophere -- including this corner of it -- jumped all over the former Republican speaker and would-be presidential candidate. Some of us dredged up old quotes in which Gingrich threw his support behind the president and attacked those who dared to raise questions. Matt Stoller at MyDD called Gingrich "another cowardly rat jumping off the Iraq ship." At Firedoglake, Jane Hamsher dubbed him a "war pimp."
It's all too much, Huffington wrote Thursday. She asked if this is "really the way we want to respond to pro-war people who change their position," and she argued that those who opposed the war from the beginning need to create some sort of safe haven for war supporters to join them now: "Isn't the whole goal of those of us fighting to put an end to this immoral, outrageous, and tragic war to get as many war supporters as possible to join the chorus of voices calling for a pull out from Iraq?"
Huffington's got a point, but only to a degree.
It would be one thing if the Newt Gingriches of the world had acknowledged from the beginning that opposition to -- or even questions about -- the war could be both reasonable and legitimate. They didn't. As recently as this January, Gingrich was suggesting to his friends at Fox News that Americans who raised doubts about the war at home were giving "comfort" to Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.
It would be one thing if the George W. Bushes and Dick Cheneys of the world would acknowledge the way in which the Bush administration twisted intelligence to pave the way for war and then justify it afterward. They haven't. Colin Powell said over the weekend that he "never believed" that Saddam Hussein had a "Niger connection" and that the claims about a nuclear threat from Iraq were trumped-up creations pushed hard by Cheney himself. But three years after the president warned of a Niger connection in his State of the Union address -- three years after all that talk about the smoking gun and the mushroom cloud -- we're still learning new facts about the way in which the White House mishandled intelligence and tried to spin it away afterward.
And it would be one thing if the president and his supporters would acknowledge that there were sides to take and decisions to make back in 2002 and 2003, and that they chose the wrong path. They haven't done that, either. Instead, Bush has pushed the "everyone else was wrong, too" theme: We all thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, we all thought he had weapons of mass destruction, we all thought war was the right way to go about fixing things. But that's not what we all thought. Twenty-three senators voted against the resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer and Lincoln Chafee weren't wrong about Iraq then. Neither was Howard Dean. The decision to go to war wasn't some kind of goof we all made; it was a decision certain people made and advocated, and some of them -- Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, even some of the generals now calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation -- may regret it now.
Is there a little ugliness in saying "I told you so"? Sure. But there's accountability in it, too. If Congress won't hold the Bush administration responsible for the way it took the nation to war, isn't it incumbent on the rest of us -- not to mention in our self-interest -- to do the job ourselves? As Hamsher writes in the sort of unforgiving language Huffington finds so objectionable, "Every one of those bastards must be made to wear this war, the war of their own making, around their necks -- or well be standing right here wondering how we got into the middle of World War III at their behest once again."
Faced with a lot of sentiments like these, Huffington is backing down just a little today. She says she didn't mean to suggest that longtime war critics should be offering a "free pass" to the recent converts. "The point isn't to let these guys remove their pro-war masks and blend in with the anti-crowd like the bank robbers do in Spike Lee's 'Inside Man,' pulling off a clean political getaway," she writes. But in the same breath, Huffington says that if war critics are serious about ending the war, they're going to have to accept that "political consensus makes for strange bedfellows" and "stop fighting -- tooth and nail -- former hawks who change their position."
As for Gingrich? He's now claiming that he hasn't changed his position at all. Faced with an uproar over his comments in Iowa, Gingrich raced back to Fox News Thursday to say that he wasn't advocating that the U.S. remove its troops from Iraq at all. What he meant, he said, was that the United States should pull its troops out of Iraq's cities and move them back to more secure bases just as soon as Iraqis are up to handling security themselves. That's the Bush administration's plan anyway, he said, and those who are calling for something different -- say, a timeline for withdrawal -- are "advocating that America accept defeat in Iraq."