Last fall was a great time for official optimism
when it came to Iraq. The military "metrics" looked ever better and, as had
happened at crucial moments in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, Bush administration
and military statements turned practically peachy with the blush of "success."
Progress was announced (repeatedly). Corners were once again about to be turned.
Tipping points were on the absolute verge of being reached. "I've never been
more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we've made in Iraq," effused
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, late that October.
Lt. Col. Val Keaveny, 3rd Batallion, 509th infantry, offered this over-the-top
mixed metaphor: "[Iraqis] are fed up with fear. Once they hit that tipping point,
they're fed up, they come to realize we truly do provide them better hope for
the future. What we're seeing now is the beginning of a snowball." That same
month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, citing a butcher in the
suburbs of Baghdad who had seen his business rise from selling one sheep a week
to one a day, said: "I don't want
to overly state it... but it's starting to happen."
And then there was George W. Bush, the man who, in November 2005, more than
two and a half years after he ordered the invasion of Iraq, launched his "strategy
for victory in Iraq" with a speech,
wielding the word "victory" 15 times and who, in January 2007, launched his
"new way forward in Iraq" (aka his "surge" strategy) in an address
to the nation in which he used "victory" a mere two times. On November 2, 2007,
the President offered this
bit of good cheer to a gathering of 1,300 soldiers graduating from basic
training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and likely headed for Iraq (or Afghanistan):
"Slowly but surely, the people of Iraq are reclaiming a normal society."
To celebrate that return to normalcy and, undoubtedly, all the corners so
far turned and points tipped, the U.S. military has, in the last two months,
fired at least 200 Hellfire missiles into the Iraqi capital, according to the
Washington Post, most of them into Sadr City, the vast, heavily populated
Shiite slum in east Baghdad. ("Just six" had been used in Baghdad in the previous
three months.) Perhaps it was on the basis of such celebrations of normalcy
that Senator John McCain recently promised Americans victory in Iraq in a mere
four and a half years. He even offered a likely date: January 2013. Something
to look forward to.
It takes an expert, of course, to make sense of these repeated demonstrations
of Washingtonian and military expertise. Fortunately, Tomdispatch had two experts
lurking in the wings, Christopher Cerf and former Nation editor and publisher
Victor Navasky of the eminently respected and respectable Institute of Expertology.
They have recently produced a rollicking ride through Bush administration expertise
– a compendium of the quotes that launched a thousand ships and that you simply
can't believe anyone actually said. ("A turning point will come two weeks from
today." George W. Bush, June 16, 2004.) Its title: Mission
Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak. They
seemed the perfect duo to put Senator McCain's particular brand of expertise
in context. Tom
How the Senator Won the War of Words in Iraq (again and again and again?)
By Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky
The Iraq war was a disaster for Iraq, a disaster
for the United States, a disaster for the Middle East, a disaster for the world
community, but most of all, it was a disaster for the experts.
They were wrong about its difficulty. (It was to be either "a cakewalk" or
"a walk in the park" – take your pick). They were wrong about how our troops
would be greeted ("as liberators" said
Vice President Dick Cheney on September, 14, 2003; "with kites and boom boxes"
Professor Fouad Ajami on October 7, 2002). They were wrong about weapons of
mass destruction. ("Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction
but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman
– could conclude otherwise" wrote
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen on February 6, 2003.) They were
wrong about how many troops would be needed. ("It's hard to conceive that it
would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would
take to conduct a war itself," said
Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on Feb 27, 2003.)
They were wrong about the number of casualties. ("...we're not going to have
any casualties," said President George W. Bush in March,
2003). They were wrong about how much it would cost. ("The costs of any
intervention would be very small," according to White House economic advisor
on October 4, 2002). They were wrong about how long it would last. ("It isn't
going to be over in 24 hours, but it isn't going to be months either," claimed
Richard Perle on July 11, 2002.) They were wrong about the "sinister nexus between
Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network," as Secretary of State Colin Powell
it in addressing the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. They were
wrong about the likelihood of Iraq descending into civil war. ("[There is] a
broad Iraqi consensus favoring the idea of pluralism," insisted
William Kristol and Robert Kagan on March 22, 2004.) There was, in fact, very
little they were not wrong about.
Who are we to make such charges? Not to be boastful, we are, respectfully,
the CEO and president – the founders, as it were – of the Institute of Expertology,
which has been surveying expert opinion for almost 25 years. It is true that
our initial study, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Guide to Authoritative
Misinformation, came under attack back in 1990 because, at the time, we
failed to find a single expert who was right, although we readily conceded that,
in statistical theory, it was possible that the experts were right as much as
half the time. It just proved exceedingly difficult to find evidence of that
our new study of the experts – people who, by virtue of their official
status, formal title, academic degree, professional license, public office,
journalistic beat, quantity of publications, experience, and/or use of highly
technical jargon, are presumed to know what they are talking about – we
once again came under attack from critics who claimed that our failure to include
any misstatements by Senator Barack Obama betrayed a political bias. These allegations
were quickly refuted. Everybody knows that Obama has no experience and therefore
does not qualify as an expert. Senator Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize
the Iraq war, did make the cut, but the presidential candidate-cum-expert of
genuine interest is Senator John McCain.
At first, we were impressed by the senator's statements in Republican primary
debates about how he had actually opposed the Bush administration's conduct
of the war from the start. As he told
CNN's Kiran Chetry, in August of 2007, "I was the greatest critic of the initial
four years, three-and-a half years."
Well, having dug into those missing years a bit, here, for the record, is
what we found to be Senator McCain's typical responses to some of the key questions
How would American troops be greeted?: "I believe? that the Iraqi people
will greet us as liberators." (March
Did Saddam Hussein have a nuclear program that posed an imminent threat
to the United States?: "Saddam Hussein is on a crash course to construct
a nuclear weapon." (October
Will a war with Iraq be long or short?: "This conflict is? going to
be relatively short." (March
How is the war going?: "I would argue that the next three to six months
will be critical." (September
How is it going (almost two months later, from the war's "greatest critic")?
"I think the initial phases of [the war] were so spectacularly successful that
it took us all by surprise." (October
Is this war really necessary?: "Only the most deluded of us could doubt
the necessity of this war." (August
How is it going? (Recurring question for the war's "greatest critic"):
"We will probably see significant progress in the next six months to a year."
(December 4, 2005)
Will the President's "surge" of troops into Baghdad and surrounding areas
that the senator had been calling for finally make the difference?: "We
can know fairly well [whether the surge is working] in a few months." (February
In April 2007, accompanied by several members of Congress, Senator McCain
made a surprise visit to Baghdad to assess the surge, had a "stroll" through
a market in the Iraqi capital, and then held a news conference where he discussed
what he found:
"Things are better and there are encouraging signs. I've been here many times
over the years. Never have I been able to drive from the airport. Never have
I been able to go out into the city as I was today. The American people are
not getting the full picture of what's happening here today."
The next evening, NBC's Nightly News provided further
details on that "stroll." The Senator and Congressmen were accompanied by
"100 American soldiers, with three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships
overhead." (In addition, the network said, still photographs provided by the
military revealed that McCain and his colleagues had been wearing body armor
during their entire stroll.)
Reality check: Five months later, on September
12, 2007, McCain again observed that "the next six months are going to be
Six months later, McCain claimed that the U.S. had finally reached a genuine
turning point in Iraq and that his faith in the surge was (once again) vindicated.
On March 17, 2008, he reported:
"We are succeeding. And we can succeed and American casualties overall are way
down. That is in direct contradiction to predictions made by the Democrats and
particularly Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. I will be glad to stake my campaign
on the fact that this has succeeded and the American people appreciate it."
Well, we at the Institute of Expertology appreciate it, too, and we are, of
course, pleased to record the Senator's ever-renewable faith in this latest
turning point. As scrupulous scholars, however, we do feel compelled to add
that the Senator is not the first to detect such a turning point. Indeed on
July 7, 2003, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith said:
"This month will be a political turning point for Iraq."
On November 6, 2003, President Bush observed:
"We've reached another great turning point..." On June 16, 2004, President Bush
"A turning point will come two weeks from today."
That same day the Montreal Gazette headlined an editorial by neoconservative
columnist Max Boot: "Despite the Negative Reaction by Much of the Media, U.S.
Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point."
On February 2, 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated:
"On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed an important moment in the global
struggle against tyranny, a moment that historians might one day call a major
turning point." On March 7, 2005 William Kristol wrote:
"[T]he Iraqi election of January 30, 2005... will turn out to have been a genuine
On December 18, as that year ended, Vice President Cheney, while conceding
that "the level of violence has continued," assured
ABC News: "I do believe that when we look back on this period of time,
2005 will have been the turning point..."
The Institute continued to record turning points in remarkable numbers in
2006, and 2007, but perhaps in 2008 the surge will, indeed, turn out to be the
turning point to end all turning points. After all, Senator McCain has staked
his campaign on it.
Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky are the co-authors of the recently
Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak, which provided
the basis for this essay. Their previous book, also a product of The Institute
of Expertology, is The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative
Misinformation. They appeared recently on Bill
Copyright 2008 Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky