Symposium | Les Gelb, in Memoriam

Iraq: Admitting a Mistake

By Heather Hurlburt Ethan Porter

Tagged Foreign Policyiraq warLes Gelb

See the other tributes to Les Gelb here.

Les sought to learn from and shape domestic political pressures and even to reconsider where they had shaped him, sometimes for the worse.

As it became clear just how profound a blunder the Iraq War had been, Les threw himself into trying to remake the relationship between foreign policy and U.S. politics. He tried to reach domestic leaders directly by blogging, well before that was an acceptable outlet for foreign policy mandarins. He served on the boards of two of the crop of organizations that emerged to operate in the center and center-left foreign policy space in the aftermath of the 2004 election: the Truman National Security Project and the National Security Network (NSN)—where Heather got to know him as board chair and mentor. With Truman and NSN, Les embraced more partisanship than many of his colleagues, but his was always the partisanship of the center: When profound polarization led to the budgetary disaster of sequestration in 2012, Les turned to the Peterson Foundation to pull together a bipartisan task force of former Cabinet members and national security figures to warn of the need to address fiscal concerns responsibly and effectively.

Responsible and effective. Fact-based. Realist with a small-r. Those were Les’s creeds, and though he may have been over-optimistic that a political majority could be built around them, he saw accurately enough what the forces of extremism, which he called “demons” in Power Rules, would lead us to.

His dismay at the decline of those values also led him to an exploration, unparalleled in modern U.S. foreign policy, of his own error in supporting the Iraq War. Ethan worked with Les as he and Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati put together the Democracy article that became “Mission Not Accomplished.” For more than a year, Les oversaw the analysis of hundreds of articles written in the run-up to the war. Everyone knows, he explained, that the mainstream press had played a pivotal role in bringing America to war. The point of the article, he said, was to offer a definitive account of how.

But in the end, the definitive critique Les offered was not so much of the media but of himself, and people like him. As the article neared publication, he wrote the closing paragraph that made the piece so memorable:

My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We “experts” have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we “perfect” the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common–often wrong–wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.

These words ultimately found their way into his New York Times obituary. With good reason. “Mission Not Accomplished” was written in the spirit of radical self-criticism, intended to be an honest accounting of how people like him had failed so egregiously. It’s easy to implore others to consider opinions contrary to their own, to castigate them for not being sufficiently independent thinkers. But to criticize yourself in such terms? That’s hard. It’s not that Les was perfect, or perfectly self-reflective—far from it. The challenges he identified were to deal with the world as it is, and politics as they are. Consider your mistakes and learn from them. Be generous with younger people coming up behind you, even—or especially—when they differ with you. As Les wrote, “Our democracy requires nothing less.”

From the Symposium

Les Gelb, in Memoriam


Stage-Setting Power

By Anne-Marie Slaughter Darren Geist Jeanne-Paloma Zelmati


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Read more about Foreign Policyiraq warLes Gelb

Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America.

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Ethan Porter Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He is the author of The Consumer Citizen (Oxford), from which this essay is adapted.

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