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Accountability and the War in Iraq

Lawrence Freedman: Well, I think there’s a distinction between the accountability of the punditry which, by and large, is not- I mean, it’s surprising- ‘cause I do it myself enough- how little people remember what you’ve said. Maybe that’s a reflection on me, but by and large, the- you know, a climate of opinion was created, not just by Administration officials, but by a lot of people who, you know- obviously, David Frum was in the Administration and then he was out of it- but a lot of people who talked up the war, again for reasons that I understand, but without thinking, “What’s this actually gonna mean in practice?” And, you know- and I think- I always sort of feel, as somebody who, you know, does get involved in these

debates, the most useful role the outsider can play in them is often just to try to analyze them as coolly as possible- here’s the upsides, here’s the downsides, here’s the risks- rather than be a sort of polemical advocate for a particular course of action, when actually you’re not responsible for how this is gonna play in practice. One of the reasons the neocons have gotten themselves into such a position on this war is that they’re blamed for creating the climate of opinion. But actually, they had very little influence over the conduct of policy itself. And so they get into the odd position of saying, “Well, this is a great thing to do, but you screwed up because you didn’t do it properly.” But, you know- what they’re asking the American government to do was historically a pretty challenging thing, and if you’re gonna be an enthusiastic advocate of the course of action, it’s no good to say, “Well, I’m sure all that will be sorted out.” And if, you know, you look at Ken Adelman’s commentary on the war, when, you know, he was the one who used the unfortunate phrase “Cake Walk”- and he was right in what he was talking about, if he thinks Saddam Hussein would be more of a “Cake Walk” than many of those who were warning of the difficulties that the American military would face. But he just assumed, and he said, as the war took place, “Hey, I’m sure Rumsfeld and so on have got great plans there. They’re great public servants and they know what they’re doing.” And then two years, three years later, he was saying, “Gosh, they screwed up.” Well, you know, it’s a bit late. So, I think there are issues of accountability when something as bold and ambitious and unusual as this, I also think- thankfully, the Americans do too often- was being planned.

Recorded on 5/19/08

Lawrence Freedman argues that journalists and policy-makers must hold themselves liable for their roles in affecting public opinion of the war.

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