In the original film of Mel Brooks' The Producers, Zero Mostel advises a blithering Gene Wilder, who has just unintentionally observed Mostel's character trying to seduce an elderly woman: "You mean 'oops,' don't you? Just say 'oops' and get out!" Yet sometimes even "oops" is not enough.
Kenneth Adelman and Richard Perle said "oops" earlier this month. As personality types, these two longtime Washington hawks couldn't be more different. Adelman is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat, while Perle is legendarily gloomy and dark. But both played a role in pushing the U.S. into war in Iraq--Adelman in an influential Washington Post Op-Ed promising that the war would be "a cakewalk" and Perle warning of catastrophe if we left Saddam Hussein and his weapons unmolested. Now, interviewed in Vanity Fair, they say it all may have been a mistake. Oops!
Yet in Vanity Fair's quotes, there is no note of contrition. It's not their fault. In fact, dispensing with Saddam, establishing peace and democracy in Iraq and then watching those ideals spread throughout the Middle East is still a good idea. It's just that President George W. Bush bungled the job. Among other things, he failed to recognize the degree of "disloyalty" within his Administration, says Perle--who was chairman of Bush's Defense Policy Board--thus proving the accusation even as he makes it.
Opponents of the Iraq war ought to be happy for two such prominent converts. So why is their conversion so enraging? Well, first, howzabout an apology? It's maddening that there's no cost for being wrong, even when it translates into thousands of people dead and billions of dollars down the drain. In our culture of value-free celebrity, in which a famous ax murderer equals a famous actress equals a famous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Adelman and Perle have merely earned another 15 minutes as hot guests on the talk shows. They have reason to be pleased, having deserted the Bush Administration five minutes ahead of the other rats. But they should try not to show their pleasure.
Second, you don't get to assume the success of your intentions then plead a shrugging "Who knew?" when they don't pan out. I also am in favor of toppling dictators, establishing democracy and watching it spread painlessly throughout every region where there is no experience of it. Not only that: I am in favor of turning sand into ice cream and guaranteeing a cone to every child in the Middle East. But you can't turn sand into ice cream. That is not a defect in the execution of the idea. It is a defect in the idea itself. Although Perle and Adelman and others may think they are dissing the Bush Administration when they talk about its incompetence in failing to turn sand into ice cream, they are also displaying the Bush Administration's key vice, which is assuming that things are how you wish them to be and not how they are.
Third, condemning Bush's conduct of the Iraq war has become an overly handy cop-out for people who don't want to support the war but can't bring themselves to say it was wrong. This would include almost every Democratic candidate in last week's midterm elections. What would these Monday-morning quarterbacks have done differently? Sent in more American troops? Puh-leeze.