Ezra Klein’s Biggest Mistake

Like many people who supported the Iraq War, Ezra Klein has written his apologia.

But he fails to identify—indeed, repeats—his biggest mistake in supporting the war: When thinking of the US government, he  thinks “we.”

Iraq, [Kenneth Pollack] said, shouldn’t be America’s top priority. We should first focus on destroying al-Qaeda. We should then work on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Only then should we turn to Hussein. Moreover, when and if we did invade Iraq, we should do so only as part of a coordinated, multilateral operation…

After all, what other chance would we get to topple Hussein?

It wasn’t worth doing precisely because the odds were high that we couldn’t do it “right.”

Klein doesn’t think a state invaded another state; he thinks “we” went to war. He identifies with the state. Whether he’s supporting or dissenting from a policy, he sees himself as part of it. He sees himself on the jeeps with the troops. That’s why his calls for skepticism, for not taking things on authority, ring so hollow. In the end, he’s on the team. Or the jeep.

Update (11:45 pm)

While we’re on the subject of the Iraq War, Yasha Levine tweeted this classic line from a Nicholas Kristof 2002 oped:

President Bush has convinced me that there is no philosophical reason we should not overthrow the Iraqi government.

Being convinced by Bush of anything seems challenge enough. But to be convinced by Bush on philosophical grounds? That’s something.



  1. jaypinho March 21, 2013 at 12:06 am | #

    Not making excuses for Klein, but he was 20 at the time, right? In February 2003, I actually marched in a pro-war counter-rally to an anti-war protest. I did it mostly because I had a gigantic American flag hanging out in my room and I figured it might get me on TV. (I did, or at least the corner of my hand did.) I was also 15.

    Point being, at what point of youth/inexperience do we draw the line? Sure, I was wrong. But I hardly think anyone was paying attention to me at the time either.

    • Corey Robin March 21, 2013 at 12:07 am | #

      But this post focuses on an issue — his identification with the US government — that he still does today. As evidenced by this article.

      • jaypinho March 21, 2013 at 12:10 am | #

        True. I concede that point. I just think he should be judged solely on the basis of how he justifies it now (which, as you point out, is troubling), rather than in comparison to his ill-formed ideas at the age of 20.

      • Malcolm Schosha March 21, 2013 at 10:03 am | #

        Corey, based on what little of Klein’s that you quote, his use of “we” could be understood as just his way of taking partial responsibility for a mistake that was not his alone. It is possible that he does also identify with the US government, but we have not seen your argument for why you think that his use of “we” is an identification. Nor have you shown how such identifications caused such an enormous fiasco as was the Iraq war.

  2. Paul Rosenberg March 21, 2013 at 12:25 am | #

    Bingo! “What do you mean, ‘we”, pale face?” In my high school, in the 60s, even the jocks were telling that joke after Eric Burdon came out with “Sky Pilot”.

    They just don’t make young people like they used to! Get offa my lawn, Ezra!

  3. dave cunningham March 21, 2013 at 2:13 am | #

    If you related to reality instead of rightwing media fantasies, you knew there was a good chance the Bush regime and the US media was lying, or fantasing. Tens of millions of people around the world demonstrated in the streets against this war, and they got less media coverage than the liarsCheney and Bush and Ms C.Rice and General Powell.

    Sorry but I don’t have that short a memory and all those people deserve public censure and or humiliation or criminal charges.

    A large part of the US population knew what was going on and alleged journalists couldn’t figure it out?

  4. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) March 21, 2013 at 7:09 am | #

    Apologies don’t mean shit at this point. Because he lied, all those people died.

  5. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) March 21, 2013 at 7:13 am | #

    If an engineer fucks up a project, the engineer can get sued….and at the very least will lose a client…But when politicians and the media screw up there is no consequence….as long as they are licking the right boots. Janeane Garafaloand Phill Donahue should be giving us all our foreign policy commentary because they were right on.

  6. Paul Rosenberg March 21, 2013 at 7:55 am | #

    President Bush convinced me there’s no philosophical reason to believe he’s not a poorly-designed automaton, of the sort one might encounter in a Philip K. Dick novel. So being convinced of philosophical points is not really the issue, I would say.

  7. Sam Holloway March 21, 2013 at 8:30 am | #

    Here it is Spring of 2013, and liberals are still supporting military aggression. They’re less equivocal about it, perhaps, now that the table manners of the current Commander-in-Chief meet with their approval.

  8. Justin March 21, 2013 at 11:57 am | #

    Maybe I’m too naive, but isn’t the problem that more people DON’T identify with the government? If we identify with the government, then its failings are our failings and there’s more motivation to change things because they’re being done in our names. If we don’t identify with it, then it’s just this abstract entity that we can have nothing to do with, which leads to the government abusing its power because none of us feel responsible for it.

    I guess I don’t think it’s a problem that Klein is “on the team” – it’s that most of us aren’t on it and thus don’t have any say on what’s happening.

    Though I fully admit that perhaps my problem in understanding is that I haven’t quite managed to abandon my sentimental attachment to democracy yet.

  9. jonnybutter March 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm | #

    The comment that wins all recent C R threads is on CT from Phosphorius:

    It’s a metaphysical oddity, one that would give Alexius Meinong a headache, that “real” conservatives don’t exist, while the conservatives that exist. . . why, they’re just not “real.”

    Bush crystalized cypher-dom to a metaphysical degree.

  10. zenner41 March 21, 2013 at 12:46 pm | #

    The problem with all (partial) democracies is that, as long as you have not completely renounced and cut off all connection with “your” country (native, adopted, or whatever), you are willy-nilly a part of it, but in matters of war and peace, especially, you have very little power to take part in the decisions of the government. As long as we have not changed that situation, we can bemoan it as much as we want, but we are stuck in it.

  11. Stephen Zielinski March 21, 2013 at 2:20 pm | #

    I often say “we” when referring to the federal government.I do so because I do not identify with its policies, and wish to affirm my citizenship rights viz the reactionary clowns who would dismiss them because I do not identify with the policies of the federal government. I also wish to remind others that they bear a bit of responsibility for the bloodshed caused by the federal government. If common Americans fail to put down the American empire, who will?

    • Krishan Bhattacharya June 12, 2013 at 4:00 pm | #

      This is exactly the point that makes me pause over Corey’s claim that Klein’s mistake is to identify with the state. No doubt, direct identification with a particular institution, say the Army, would reliably produce bad politics. But if the American millions did NOT think ‘we’ when referring to the state then 1) the government wouldn’t function much at all 2) people would feel even less responsible than they already do for state practices that are manifestly abhorrent.

      And what of nations where people really don’t identify with the government? Russia comes to mind…

  12. Ned Ludd March 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm | #

    Because he supported the stablishment position on Iraq, Ezra Klein was able to rise into the ranks of the establishment. Back in January 2007, Jebediah Reed of the now-defunct Radar Magazine took a look at some of the career trajectories of pundits who supported the war (Tom Friedman, Peter Beinart, Fareed Zakaria, Jeffrey Goldberg) and the subsequent careers of vocal opponents of the invasion (Robert Scheer, William. S. Lind, Jonathan Schell, Scott Ritter). If Klein had been against the war, he never would have been promoted from obscurity to the pages of the Washington Post.

    On September 18, 2004, in an apolgia he wrote after support for the war had weakened considerably, Ezra Klein posted at Pandagon about his “path to hawkishness”. He reveals his distrust of “peaceniks” and animosity towards “dumbaѕѕ hippies” (from a Robert Farley quote he identifies with).

    I’m quite ashamed that, during the whole of the run-up, I never thought to notice that the President’s rationales and statements were less credible and more infantile than those of the white-bearded peaceniks denouncing him on street corners. […]

    Update: Robert Farley seems to have felt similarly: “I know that one of the hardest obstacles I had to overcome in adopting an anti-war position on Iraq was the recognition that I would be on the same side as all those dumbaѕѕ hippies I knew at the University of Oregon, as well as those dumbaѕѕ hippies I know in Seattle. At the time, I always strove to distance my arguments from theirs”

    Truly a brother-in-arms.

    Farley now writes for The American Prospect (where Klein wrote before moving to the Washington Post). Klein did not trust peaceniks and did not like hippies. If he was honest and genuinely self-reflective, he would laud his earlier pro-war position for paving the way for his successful career.

  13. Brian A. Graham March 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm | #

    You are dead on as usual. One can see the same process playing out in our media’s responses to attempts to cut social security benefits and pension “reforms” being played out in various states. At no level, federal, state, or local, is dissent with official policies not marginalized. Elite official policy is always endorsed, and the reporters identify with the “very serious people” no matter how often they are wrong.

  14. LarryE March 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm | #

    My problem with Klein’s “apology” is that he says he didn’t support the war that actually happened, he supported a “different” war, the one Kenneth Pollack talked about, the one where the difficulties and expense and the long-term nature were acknowledged in advance. But that didn’t happen, so “I turned on the war quickly when I saw how poorly and arrogantly it was being managed.”

    In other words, if we’d had Kenneth Pollack’s war, if we’d done it “right,” well, that would have been okay.

    Not much of an apology in my book.

    • Paul Rosenberg March 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm | #

      “You go to war with the war you’ve got, not with the war you wished you had.”

    • Ned Ludd March 24, 2013 at 3:28 pm | #

      Ezra Klein’s latest apologia sounds like he copped it from Josh Marshall.

      Ezra Klein:“Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration.”

      Josh Marshall“Many people — and to my chagrin and regret I include myself partly in this number — were seduced into a sorta kinda support for a hypothetical Iraq war. Not the war George Bush would fight, certainly. But one that would be fought on liberal principles and with internationalist means, one about human rights and democratization, one about strengthening a concert of nations that would police malefactor states.”

      I wonder how often pundits simply copy one another, trying out different talking points until they find ones that sound plausible and credible.

      I honestly can’t remember the last time I had an original thought,” [MSNBC’s Chris Hayes] says, laughing. “It’s just like total pastiche. It’s like if you steal from enough different sources, you can look original.”

      Copying others in the establishment seems a safe way to advance your career without ever accidentally saying something that threatens those in power.

  15. Claude.Horvath March 24, 2013 at 3:34 am | #

    Thank you for noticing this unfortunate lapse into “we” with relation to the U.S. government — and for letting other folks know.

  16. Claude.Horvath March 24, 2013 at 3:37 am | #

    Thanks for both noticing, and reporting on, Klein’s identification with the U.S. government.

  17. BarryB March 24, 2013 at 5:49 pm | #

    Corey, it should (but won’t) foster discussion on the notion of self-identification with government, and how it is easily manipulated by those in power. “We” needed to invade Vietnam? “We” need to cut the shortterm deficit at the expense of jobs? And then there’s wWe” need to sacrifice, when that particular “we” means money out of the pockets of all but the wealthy and powerful. “We” would seem to be a method of disassociating responsibility. It’s not surprising Klein does this, as he’s tried so very hard to be part of the pundit crowd with top access to the powerful.

  18. Jod April 6, 2013 at 10:02 am | #

    Not to say ‘we’ is to evade responsibility for common decisions. The fact that ‘we’ waged war (yes, it’s fair enough to point out that most of us didn’t actually go) is what makes many of ‘us’ most upset–it was done by ‘us’ whether we as individuals supported the decision or not. ‘We,’ all of us, bear the burden of this crime.

  19. Jack Turner June 12, 2013 at 11:15 am | #

    From George Kateb’s 2008 essay “On Patriotism” at CATO UNBOUND:

    “The brute fact of patriotism is made brute by the inveterate inclination in men to associate virility with the exertion involved in killing and risking death. No theory can ever defeat or discredit this inclination, which helps to engender the fantasy that the competition of political units is the highest kind of team sports. Men love teams, love to live in a world where they are called on to back or play for their team against other teams, even though the sport of war is soaked in blood. Socratic notions of gratitude or Jamesian notions of infinite indebtedness are not necessary for this love. In the sport, where aristocrats used to play their games, elites now mobilize groups or masses to slaughter each other. Men can become peace-loving for a while, but not forever. The women who love them encourage their inclination to see team sports as the essence of their masculinity, and to call patriotic this inclination when it is projected into politics. The pity is that men lend their energies to a state that sooner or later embarks on an inherently unjust imperialist career and thus gets constantly engaged in policies that are deliberated in secrecy, and sustained by secrecy and propaganda, and removed from meaningful public deliberation. Patriotism is indispensable for sustaining this career of anti-democracy.

    In general, an activist foreign policy works tirelessly to de-legitimate any constitutional democracy. Patriotism is the greatest asset in the internal and ever-present war against the sentiments and institutions of free government. The support of one’s team is not the defense of the Constitution. What gets hollowed out is government by rational consent, while a number of basic freedoms are steadily attenuated. The original contract for constitutional democracy is usurped, and replaced, in significant part, by a second contract for expansion and predation. It is bad enough that the original contract is interpreted to mandate dying for one’s country. Much worse is the displacement of the original contract. The spoils of activism and imperialism intensify political and economic inequality while immunizing leaders from their accountability to citizens to an ever greater extent. Citizens become followers. Leaders and followers live in different worlds. Citizens allow the patriotic thrill of team sports to obscure the radical alteration that descends on the original contract, while acquiescing in the gains of large and sometimes sinister interests that use patriotism in their appeals for support. The great theorists of the social contract would have been horrified; they didn’t quite have such a drastic mutation in mind – not to mention the anti-imperialist Socrates in his espousal of the parent-state.

    Patriotism, more than any other passion in political life, makes virtues do the work of vices while promoting the praise of vices as disguised virtues. It thus sustains enormous moral perversity. If no one were a patriot, the world would be better off than it now is, when almost all are patriots. Theorists shouldn’t join in.”

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