Michael O'Hanlon's defense of his pro-war record

The Brookings war cheerleader announces: "I believe Ken Pollack and I have been generally proven right by events."

By Glenn Greenwald
May 21, 2008 5:31PM (UTC)
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(updated below)

For the May/June issue of National Interest, I wrote an article on the pervasive wrongness of our elite pundit class and their complete lack of accountability. In the article, I didn't critique the error-plagued work of the Brooking Institution's Michael O'Hanlon -- in part because I consider him a think-tank war theorist rather than a "pundit" -- but his name was mentioned in passing. I wrote:

In their never-ending hope that Americans will begin to support the McCain position on Iraq, the Politico published a blatantly one-sided article, authored by David Paul Kuhn and citing the now-infamous Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution:
The uptick in public support is a promising sign for Republican candidates who have been bludgeoned over the Bush administration’s war policies. But no candidate stands to gain more than McCain.

But on the very same day, a USA Today/Gallup poll was released, showing -- surprise, surprise -- that 60 percent of Americans wanted to "set a timetable for removing troops and stick to it regardless of what is going on in Iraq."

For some reason, that prompted O'Hanlon to write a lengthy response in National Interest to my article -- entitled "O'Hanlon Strikes Back" -- primarily devoted to defending his record over the years as a war supporter. To construct his self-defense, O'Hanlon lists ten of what he says "are [his] main predictions or assessments about the war over the last six years," and then proceeds to give himself a grade based on whether each one turned out to be "correct" or "incorrect." He proudly announces: "Grading my own homework, I give myself a score of 7 out of 10."

In response, Think Progress has compiled just a small fraction of O'Hanlon's flagrantly misleading and wildly misinformed pronouncements over the years about the Iraq War. When I first began writing about what O'Hanlon calls his "scholarship" concerning the Iraq War, I demonstrated that, beginning in 2003 and throughout 2004, O'Hanlon frequently claimed that great progress was being made and that the administration's strategy was the right one. So I'm more than happy to have others examine O'Hanlon's history of war claims and decide for themselves if he deserves the mantles of expertise and scholarship that he claims for himself. In fact, I urge everyone to engage in that important exercise.

But for the moment, I want to focus on one specific prong of O'Hanlon's self-defense that I find both amazing and incredibly revealing. When setting forth his list of 10 issues on which he grades himself, this is one of the "issues" about which O'Hanlon now acknowledges he was "incorrect" -- the one he lists third:

Willingness to support war once that inspection record was revealed to be imperfect: incorrect, given how poor the Bush administration's preparation for the post-Saddam period turned out to be. It was very hard to realize how shoddy this preparation was, looking from the outside, but I wish I had dug deeper and pressed harder.

In other words, one of the issues about which O'Hanlon was "incorrect" -- standing inconspicuously aside the other 9 -- is whether the war should have been waged in the first place. That small side matter of "incorrect" support for the war just counts as one little mark against him (hey, that's just one wrong out of ten!). He actually concludes with this: "I believe Ken Pollack and I have been generally proven right by events." And this year, O'Hanlon has virtually made a career out of running around warning Democrats like Barack Obama that they had better not advocate withdrawal from Iraq.

This dismissive treatment is reflective of the ongoing effort by the pro-war establishment to whitewash their responsibility for what they have done. The war they unleashed resulted in the complete devastation of another country for no good reason. It has led to the death of 100,000 innocent human beings -- at the very least -- and the displacement of millions more. American credibility lies in ruins. And there's still no end in sight.

Yet those who were most responsible for selling this devastating and grotesque war to the public -- and O'Hanlon and his "Brookings colleague Ken Pollack" played as large a role in that as anyone -- insist that what they did not be held against them, that it shouldn't affect how their "expertise and scholarship" are perceived nor undermine their standing and credibility in any way. As O'Hanlon's fellow war "scholar" Anne-Marie Slaughter petulantly protested a couple months ago: "The debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion." The only unfairness they voice -- the only thing that provokes their passion or moves them to anger -- is when they are excessively criticized for their war support. To them, that's the grave injustice in all of this.


The only way one can think that way -- the only way one can be so haughty and self-absorbed and unremorseful -- is through complete indifference to the effects of their actions. There's just no other way to be so relentlessly self-justifying and even indignant in the face of criticisms over their war support except by blocking out, just ignoring, the extreme, totally pointless human suffering and slaughter for which they're responsible. Whether to attack Iraq and then whether to continue the occupation endlessly as we've done are far and away the most significant political questions of this generation. To act as though it's just one of many interesting policy questions to add to someone's "homework" tally is just staggering.

Twenty years from now, the Michael O'Hanlons and Ken Pollacks and various Kagan Family members of today are going to be viewed the way the Robert McNamaras of the Vietnam era came to be perceived: as coddled, sheltered monsters who -- from a safe and sterile distance -- viewed and endlessly cheered on "war" as some abstract, intellectualized and fun game to play at think tank parties, totally oblivious to the savagery and havoc it wreaked on other people's lives. Perhaps in old age, they'll write some self-flagellating, McNamara-like mea culpa. But nobody else needs to wait until then to describe what they actually are.


There is one thing that O'Hanlon wrote in his response that I hope is accurate:

In fact, to the extent I may be infamous in some circles, it is in no small part thanks to Greenwald's scalding critiques of the work I did last summer after returning from a trip to Iraq and writing about it with my colleague Ken Pollack in the New York Times. Greenwald was among the most prominent and vocal of those who criticized us for being politically motivated, uninformed, easily fooled or otherwise irresponsible when we argued that the new surge-based strategy had yielded impressive results and created the possibility of a much-better outcome in Iraq than had seemed possible six months before.

If that's even remotely true, I count that as among the accomplishments of which I'm proudest. There are few more urgent priorities than documenting what our nation's leading war advocates and "war scholars" really are.

UPDATE: A couple of commenters make the case that the comparison of O'Hanlon and friends to McNamara is unfair . . . to McNamara. I'm not sure I agree entirely with their argument, but they make the case well -- here and here. The first comment is from James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas and son of Kennedy adviser (and Ambassador) John Kenneth Galbraith.

Glenn Greenwald

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