BILL MOYERS: Every year at this time for five years now, we're reminded of the armistice that never happened. On May 1, 2003, the White House staged a spectacular photo opportunity for the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
BILL MOYERS: You've been seeing these images all week—our president landing on the USS Lincoln, announcing peace was at hand.
REPORTER: ...President made history today. It was a historic day.
REPORTER II: This one could be called historic.
REPORTER III: The first sitting president to land on a carrier.
REPORTER IV: Congratulating them on a mission accomplished.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed!
BILL MOYERS: Unfortunately, that was not true. The war had just begun...Once again the official version of reality was false. The experts, remember, had all agreed: there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:...of uranium from Africa.
BILL MOYERS: ....Saddam Hussein had ties to the terrorists...
DONALD RUMSFELD:...Al Qaeda members.
BILL MOYERS: The war would be a slam dunk...and quickly over.
DONALD RUMSFELD: It could last, you know, six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.
BILL MOYERS: No one had pushed the war more than vigorously than Vice President Cheney. He said..."I think it'll go relatively quickly...weeks rather than months."
BILL MOYERS: And, said the experts, it won't take many troops or require much sacrifice...Rumsfeld's deputy Paul Wolfowitz...
PAUL WOLFOWITZ:...we can say with reasonable confidence that the notion of hundreds of thousands of American troops is way off the mark...
BILL MOYERS: And the cost to the taxpayer, the experts assured us—practically nothing.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: ...we are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon.
BILL MOYERS: Ted Koppel put the question to America's top aid official on Nightline:
TED KOPPEL: ...you're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is gonna be done for $1.7 billion?
ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, in terms of the American taxpayers' contribution, I do; this is it for the U.S., the rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges.
BILL MOYERS: And now, mission accomplished, experts savored the triumph. The editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol, "The first two battles of this new era are now over. The battles of Afghanistan and Iraq have been won decisively and honorably."
BILL MOYERS: The neo-conservative warrior Richard Perle told doubters to get over it. The war, he said "...ended quickly with few civilian casualties and with little damage to Iraq's cities, towns or infrastructure...it ended... without the quagmire [the war's critics] predicted...relax and enjoy it."
BILL MOYERS: Said columnist Mona Charen of the Commander in Chief, "the man who slept through many classes at Yale and partied the nights away stands revealed as a profound and great leader who will reshape the world for the better. The United States is lucky once again."
BILL MOYERS: And columnist Charles Krauthammer said, "The only people who think this wasn't a victory are Upper West Side liberals and a few people here in Washington."
BILL MOYERS: The Iraqis, said the experts, were sure to rally 'round...
WILLIAM KRISTOL: "I think there's been a certain amount of frankly, Terry, pop sociology in America...that...the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular."
BILL MOYERS: You'll find these quotes and many others like them in this new book, Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won The War In Iraq. It's an in-depth study and analysis of five years of expert commentary on the Iraq war. The authors have somewhat sadly, if not reluctantly, concluded that the most distinguished cast of experts ever before assembled reached a grand consensus on the Iraq war—and that all of them got it wrong. How did it happen? The whole thing is so tragic perhaps only satire can give us the answer.
Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky are here to answer that question. They are the founders of The Institute of Expertology — that's right. The Institute of Expertology. They also have day jobs.
Christopher Cerf is the satirist and composer whose music helped make Sesame Street one of the most popular programs in television history. He's also the executive producer of the PBS literary education series, Between The Lines, as well as the co-editor of the highly acclaimed Iraq War Reader.
Victor Navasky was for many years the editor and publisher of The Nation, founded in 1865 when he was a preschooler, one of the country's oldest journals of opinion. Winner of the National Book Award for the book Naming Names, Victor Navasky is now Chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review. Gentlemen, welcome to the Journal.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: How did we win the war in Iraq?
VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, at every stage, there was someone who proclaimed that it was over. And when this book came out, we were told isn't it a shame that it's coming out now, because the country has reached a turning point with the surge. And based on our research at the Institute of Expertology—
BILL MOYERS: Somewhere between the Brookings Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, yeah. And the American Enterprise Institute. I mean, we consider them rivals, however, in our study. But we were sympathetic to the point of view that we've reached a turning point. Because, as we show in the book, in 2003, we were told by the President of the United States that we've reached a turning point. And then, in 2004, we were told we had reached a turning point.
And then, in 2005, we were told by Donald Rumsfeld we have reached a turning point. And then—So every year, three or four times, we seem to have reached a turning point. So that's one of the ways that we have triumphed.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, the experts said we won the war, so we won the war?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: And they keep saying it. In fact, when the Basra invasion by the Iraqi Army, that was supposed to clean up the Shiites in Basra began. You may recall the president said that day that it was a decisive moment in the history of a free Iraq. And you can tell, since then, we—it's practically over, right?
VICTOR NAVASKY: And, but to be fair, they don't all say that we won the war. There are a whole school of experts who say that we'll know in six months whether or not we've won the war.
BILL MOYERS: That's a repetitive litany in your book—
VICTOR NAVASKY: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: —all the people who keep saying three more months, six more months—and it's a bipartisan litany. I mean, John McCain, Hillary Clinton—
VICTOR NAVASKY: John McCain, well, they had a disagreement. Hillary said in 2002, I believe, that it would be three to six months. And then, McCain said in 2003, it would be three months. Or vice-versa. It really doesn't matter, because what matters, that McCain has been mis-portrayed in the media now as saying he was an opponent of the war all along. This is an unfair attack on his patriotism. He was very supportive of this war and predicted it would be over in a matter of a short time.
BILL MOYERS: So how do you decide who is an expert? What makes an expert?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Well, I think if you are in the government—this is one of the problems we have in the country—you are, by definition, an expert. In fact, you're unpatriotic if you disagree with someone in the government. And your expertise, if you had any before, becomes suspect.
BILL MOYERS: But these experts also included scholars, pundits, columnists.
VICTOR NAVASKY: People are believed to be experts who proclaim their expertise. Some of them do it directly. Others do it by using jargon, by parading the number of articles they've published, by their titles, and by their uniforms. And then, people who have positions of status and power, whether in the press, who are supposed to be adversaries of the establishment. Or, you know, the heads of departments—great departments of government—are assumed to know what they're talking about. So anyone who is presumed to know what he is talking about, we, at the Institute of Expertology are ready to say, is an expert, but you have to trust us—they don't.
BILL MOYERS: How many years did you study to become experts on expertology?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Well, it really began when we did our book 24 years ago, called The Experts Speak, which was a definitive compendium of misinformation. And we set out with the idea that probably just by chance, by sheer probability, the experts would be right 50 percent of the time. We just weren't able to find any experts who were right.
VICTOR NAVASKY: And also—just to—not to interrupt, but to interrupt—
BILL MOYERS: You're an expert at that.
VICTOR NAVASKY: —an expert at that. Well, no. You think you are flattering us, you know, start calling us experts on the experts. We consider ourselves meta experts. Because we have lost any faith in the views of experts. And we don't want to be tarred with that description.
BILL MOYERS: Well, this is not a new phenomenon, as you've just said. I mean, in that book, The Experts Speak, which I got 24 years ago, the same things were being said about Vietnam, 1962. We're turning the tide against the Viet Cong in Vietnam, by the Army Vice-Chief of Staff. 1963. The spearhead of aggression has been blunted in Vietnam. John F. Kennedy, 1964. I didn't just screw Ho Chi Minh, I... LBJ. 1965. The Viet Cong are going to collapse within weeks. Not months, but weeks. Walt Rostow, State Department. I mean, there seems to be something that expertise seems to be passed from one generation of powerful people to another, right?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Absolutely. In fact, one of my favorite quotes in The Experts Speak comes from a general in the Civil War. They were doing it even then. General Sedgewick, who surveyed the enemy battle lines. He was a Union general. And he looked out over the Confederate lines, and he said, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dis—" Those were his last words, actually.
VICTOR NAVASKY: And it's not just from generation to generation. It happens within weeks. So, Condoleezza Rice said, "We don't want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud." Her great image, talking about what's gonna— And then, President Bush, a few weeks later, said, "We don't want the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud." They borrow each other's language and they reinforce each other's message.
BILL MOYERS: Do experts have to work hard to be so wrong? It's not easy to achieve a grand consensus, right?
VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, I think it comes pretty naturally to them. And it's not only that they're wrong. It's that they are arrogant in their erroneousness. I mean, to take one of your colleagues in the press, Bill O'Reilly. I mean, he not only "it will be over in a matter of weeks." He would say—he made a bet and said, "I will bet anybody and buy them a dinner"—where was the dinner going to be?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: It was gonna be in the Gaslight District of San Diego.
VICTOR NAVASKY: San Diego, right. "If I'm wrong that this lasts more than a few weeks." And so, they have contempt for those who don't agree with them. And that's part of a personality that goes with some of this expertise.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: The scary part is that at least in recent years, reporters will lose access to the news if they don't toe the line. And, of course, we just saw that with the Pentagon and the military experts. And those guys were all afraid that they wouldn't get briefings any more if they disagreed. And—
BILL MOYERS: The guys at the networks?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Yeah. They're all the military—
BILL MOYERS: But also, the fellows at the networks were worried that if they didn't put these guys on, they wouldn't have access again to the government. Right?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Well, that's true.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Now, the press is a story unto itself though. But I think I remember, you know, recently, there was a controversy about whether Barack Obama should be wearing a flag pin on his lapel. And I remember at the outbreak of the Iraq war, there was an argument about whether anchors should be wearing a pin or not. And I remember Dan Rather saying he didn't wear one himself, but he didn't care if other people did. It was up to them, or not. And while they're have this debate on one of the cable networks, in the lower left hand corner of the screen, there's an American flag flapping away. So it's just—they're oblivious to what's going on.
BILL MOYERS: Did you find a single expert who got it right?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Well, strangely enough, we did. And it was Dick Cheney himself.
BILL MOYERS: How's that?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Because he was interviewed in 1994 by our rival institute, the American Enterprise Institute. And he was uncanny in his predictions. He said that if we tried to invade Iraq and go all the way to Baghdad, we'd find ourselves caught between the Sunnis and the Shiites. He said that Turkey wouldn't like that, and they could come down to try to deal with the Kurds. He worried about we could end up as an occupying power and be there for years. He was very prescient.
BILL MOYERS: So being prematurely right can be as dangerous as being prematurely wrong?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Well, it was certainly dangerous to him. He obviously decided he needed to change his position.
BILL MOYERS: Some people did get it right. Knight Ridder newspapers got it right at the time.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, yeah. But a lot of people, like The Nation and others, who were—who said this is a bad idea. But we don't count them as experts, because they're extremists. And therefore, they're not part of our databank at the Institute of Expertology.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: And they pollute our sample.
VICTOR NAVASKY: And they pollute our sample.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Yeah.
VICTOR NAVASKY: And people say, well, you have a partisan agenda. And we say, "No. We've got McCain. We've got Hillary." And they say, what about Barack Obama? Barack Obama had no experience, as everybody knows. And therefore, he didn't qualify as an expert. So—
BILL MOYERS: But so many of these experts have been writing books since all of this happened, saying, not our fault. Bush blew it. Right?
VICTOR NAVASKY: We have a whole section on why it wasn't their fault.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: "Who me?" is the name of the section in our book.
BILL MOYERS: What about Douglas Feith, who was a senior official at the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, and an architect of the war?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: He has a whole book out now, as I understand, or is coming out
BILL MOYERS: We have some clips here. Josh Marshall, who runs TalkingPointsMemo.com, a very interesting website, put together a montage of interviews of Feith since his new book came out. Take a look.
STEVE KROFT: One of the reasons we were told we were going to war with Iraq was that an imminent attack with weapons of mass destruction was about to happen.
DOUGLAS FEITH: I don't believe anybody in the US government said that.
STEVE KROFT: Uh, this is Donald Rumsfeld, "Iraq poses a serious and mounting threat to our country"
DONALD RUMSFELD: No terrorist poses a greater and more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iraqi regime is a threat to any American.
DICK CHENEY: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction, there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.
DOUGLAS FEITH: It is true that there was a serious error that the CIA made in saying that we would find WMD stockpiles, and it was a terrible mistake for the administration to have made those stockpiles in any way a part of the case for war. I don't think we needed to—
STEVE KROFT: You don't think we needed to?
DOUGLAS FEITH: I don't think we needed to.
STEVE KROFT: But isn't that the whole lynchpin for the war?
DOUGLAS FEITH: I don't believe so.
DOUGLAS FEITH: Would the rationale for the war have been sound, would it have been impressive, you know, persuasive to the American people without the reliance on the erroneous intelligence, I think the answer's yes.
BILL MOYERS: Do experts ever learn anything?
VICTOR NAVASKY: I think that they—based on our studies, anyway—they learn to say it again in different ways. And they recycle the propositions that other people make. But they have such contempt for people who they don't consider worthy. That it's hard for them to absorb what they have to say. For example, when Hans Blix, who was in charge of the inspections of the—whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, said they hadn't found any, who was it? Laura—
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Laura Ingraham.
BILL MOYERS: Who is Laura Ingraham?
VICTOR NAVASKY: Laura Ingraham is a conservative columnist and a person who is accorded great respect as an expert, said "Hans Blix couldn't find the—"
CHRISTOPHER CERF: The stretch marks?
VICTOR NAVASKY: "—The stretch marks on Rosie O'Donnell." That's what she said. So how is she gonna learn, if that's her attitude towards the guy who is charged with, and has all of these inspectors who are over there looking for the facts on the ground?
BILL MOYERS: How is it, Chris, that so many people who were wrong about matters of life and death, keep getting, you know, promoted over the years? I mean, they've become New York Times columnists and contributors to the cable talk shows and all. How does that happen, when they've been so wrong about real issues of life and death?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Well, I think, you know, to be a little arrogant ourselves, and people don't go back and check. And that's what we've tried to do in our Mission Accomplished book. But now you—the attention span of, of the news and of the watchers of the news is very short. So people don't remember that Doug Feith said certain things five years ago, you know.
VICTOR NAVASKY: But there's another thing Chris, too, which is that people who are in charge of promoting other people are the same—come from the same power environment. And so, they reward these predictions, and because it reaffirms their core beliefs in the first place.
BILL MOYERS: So why should we pay attention to the experts?
VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, there's one other thing before I—
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, sure.
VICTOR NAVASKY: —I tell you why we should. I mean, I—you know. These are very complicated questions from the Institute. We spend a lot of—
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Yeah.
VICTOR NAVASKY: A lot of years thinking about it. The format of journalism is that you quote someone on one side, and then you quote someone on the other, and you have to pick experts. And the theory being that if you get two people who, as we found out in The Experts Speak, two experts who are wrong, that somehow you're gonna get the truth out of that. In the case of why did The Times hire Bill Kristol, however, there's a case where I think that it's a principle of the op-ed page. If you have people on one side—Bob Herbert or someone like that—and he happens to be right, you need someone who happens to be wrong on the other side. So, it's—that's one of the principles of balance that happens in the news business. And—
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Fairness and balance.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have a favorite expert? I mean, some of these people are your friends. Do you have a favorite expert?
VICTOR NAVASKY: I have a favorite expert and a friend. And Chris, I'm sure, has his. But my favorite quote—he's my favorite expert. But it's a quote by Paul Wolfowitz, who, you know, came from the academic community, and then had this very important career in the Defense Department, et cetera.
And he says, at one point, "I think foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq." Now, on the surface, I say, yeah, absolutely. And then I just say just—just a minute. What are we? What are we doing over there? And the more you think about it, the more that quote resonates. And that's a really—that's a big deal.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: It's very true. There's a quote from Trent Lott in the book that—
BILL MOYERS: Former Senator, now lobbyist.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Exactly. Shows a similar kind of attitude, where he says that he doesn't understand why Shiites kill Sunnis and Sunnis kill Shiites, 'cause they all look alike. And how do they tell the difference? Which shows again, the deep thought and the knowledge of hundreds of years of civilization that we've kind of stumbled into over there.
VICTOR NAVASKY: And speaking of our friends, Richard Cohen, who's a very smart, intelligent, liberal columnist for The Washington Post. After Colin Powell gave his speech at the U.N., he wrote a very compelling explanation of why, after listening to that evidence, he says that nobody could doubt that they have weapons of mass destruction. And then he says, "Only a fool, or possibly a Frenchman, could think otherwise." Now, the point about that is, you know, Richard is a great writer, and is very funny. And—but it's also quote arrogant. And then, he may complain about us, because we don't point out in the book that he changed his mind about the war later on. But of course, I'm not—it's out of context in that sense. But in fact, we think all the experts are out of context. And so, we're trying to respect their modus, and not correct the record when they correct the record.
BILL MOYERS: Now, to be fair and balanced—experts are bipartisan, right? I mean, your book is full of—
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: —Democrats, liberals—
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: —conservatives.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Al Gore.
BILL MOYERS: Al Gore, right.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Hillary Clinton. All in there.
BILL MOYERS: Right. But I have to ask you a tough question. Is it true that the Institute of Expertology is financed by earmarks?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: We're not really at liberty to reveal or financial sources now. But we will—we plan to release them shortly.
BILL MOYERS: Will you give me some estimate of your annual budget?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: It's a lot larger than you think. We do have a sign. We invested $36 earlier this year in a sign that says "The Institute of Expertology". And you can see it in the back of our book. And when—wherever we go to have a meeting, we bring that sign with us.
BILL MOYERS: You have a special bonus second at the end of Mission Accomplished. A sneak preview of our forthcoming book, The Experts Speak About Iran. How seriously do you take all of this speculation in Washington that the Pentagon is preparing for a military strike against Iran?
VICTOR NAVASKY: Uh, If you read Norman Podhoretz's account in that section, you—where he says that we have a carrier right off the coast of Iran, and all the president has to do is say "go." And that the non-military solutions have not worked. You can't not take it seriously.
BILL MOYERS: This is your special bonus section. And it begins with a quote from President George W. Bush. "This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. Having said that, all options are on the table."
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Which is almost exactly word for word what he once said about the Iraq war.
BILL MOYERS: So you fellows have a lot of work to do, right?
CHRISTOPHER CERF: We do.
VICTOR NAVASKY: We have a lot of work. And people think that because there are some laughs in this book, that it's not serious. And you know, Mark Twain talked about the assault of laughter. And I think some of that's going on here.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Satire is a part of the social dialogue. And you wouldn't want to accuse us of being satirists, 'cause we are serious scholars at the institute.
BILL MOYERS: I am an expert on satire. I mean, I know a satirist when I see one.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Yes. You are.
BILL MOYERS: And I'm in the presence of two. The book is Mission Accomplished: Or How We Won the War In Iraq. Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, thanks for being with us on the Journal.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Our pleasure.
CHRISTOPHER CERF: Thanks for having us.
VICTOR NAVASKY: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: When George Bush landed on the deck of the USS Lincoln, 139 American soldiers had died in Iraq. That was five years ago. Now more than 4000 have died, 30,000 have been wounded, over 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives, and nearly five million others have been displaced by the violence and destruction.
50 more American soldiers died last month—the highest monthly figure since last September. Over 30 Iraqis were killed and at least 65 injured on Wednesday and Thursday by two suicide bombers. CBS News and the Washington Post have both reported recently that the Pentagon is drawing up options for military strikes against Iran. The Secretary of Defense says that's not so. But Washington has moved a second carrier into the Persian Gulf—the USS Lincoln, the very same ship on whose deck President Bush landed five years ago yesterday to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
We'll see you next week.