iraq war

An Unhappy Anniversary for the Iraq War

On the unhappy 15th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the Charles Koch Institute’s William Ruger and Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich offer important and timely op eds.

Writing in the New York Times, Ruger sees Iraq as “just the worst in a string of failures” of U.S. foreign policy in the past quarter century, a range of missions that have cost nearly 7,000 American troops killed, tens of thousands wounded, and trillions of dollars spent, with precious little to show for it. “Underlying all of these failures,” Ruger writes, “is the view, endorsed by both parties, that we need an active military presence around the globe to shape what happens almost everywhere.” He calls for an “alternate approach to the United States’ role in the world,” a “constructive but realistic mind-set [that] would put our safety first while expanding America’s opportunities to engage productively with the world.”

Bacevich takes the occasion of this sad anniversary to comment on the disconnect between the American people and the elites who sold the war. He attributes Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election to the “blood sacrifice vote” – the “communities that paid a high price for the Iraq War in terms of casualties.” Hillary Clinton prevailed among those who preferred to let “someone else’s sons and daughters do the fighting.” It is the sort of scathing critique that Bacevich has come to be known for, but it is no less accurate or insightful for having been written before.

Trump voters, Bacevich posits, supported him, despite the fact that they suspected his “America First” campaign to be “all but devoid of substantive content”:

because Trump said aloud what they themselves knew: that the Iraq War had been [a] monumental error for which they, and pointedly not members of the political elite, had paid dearly. In short, a vote for Trump offered them a way to express their disdain for establishment politicians whose dishonesty they considered far more odious than Trump’s own pronounced tendency to shave the truth.

I’ve written before of how the yawning gap between the foreign policy elite and the people who fight the wars and pay the bills paved the way for a person like Donald Trump to win the presidency (see especially here and here). But I do think it worthwhile to dwell, for a moment, on Iraq as a particularly important step along the process that turned that gap into a chasm.

Want to End War? Privatize the VA.

A while back, the Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies and director of health policy studies took to the pages of the New York Times to explain why privatizing the Veterans Health Administration would lead to less war and better health care for veterans. 

Has the GOP Learned Anything from the Iraq Debacle?

GOP Agrees Bush Was Wrong to Invade Iraq, Now What?”—that’s how the US News headline put it last week. A good question, because it’s not at all clear what that grudging concession signifies. It’s nice that 12 years after George W. Bush lumbered into the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation, the leading Republican contenders are willing to concede, under enhanced interrogation, that maybe it wasn’t the right call. It would be nicer still if we could say they’d learned something from that disaster. 

Alas, the candidates’ peevish and evasive answers to the Iraq Question didn’t provide any evidence for that. Worst of all was Jeb Bush’s attempt to duck the question by using fallen soldiers as the rhetorical equivalent of a human shield. Ohio governor John Kasich flirted with a similar tactic—“There’s a lot of people who lost limbs and lives over there, OK?”—before conceding, “But if the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no.” 

That’s how most of the GOP field eventually answered the question, with some version of
the “faulty intelligence” excuse. We thought Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical
and biological weapons and was poised for a nuclear breakout; it was just our bad luck
that turned out not to be true; so the war was—well,
not a “mistake,” insists Marco Rubio, just, er—whatever the word is for something you definitely wouldn’t do again if you had the
power to travel back in time. As Scott Walker, who’s been studying up
super-hard on
foreign policy, explained: you can’t fault President Bush: invading Iraq just made sense, based on
“the information he had available” at the time. 

Well, no—invading Iraq was a spectacularly bad idea based on what we knew at the time. If we’d found stockpiles of so-called WMD, it would still have been a spectacularly bad idea. Saddam’s possession of unconventional weapons was a necessary condition in the Bush administration’s case for war, but it wasn’t—or shouldn’t have been—sufficient to make that case compelling, because with or without chemical and biological weapons, Saddam’s Iraq was never a national security threat to the United States. 

Think Tanks and the Iraq War

As I noted last week, the GOP’s 2016 contenders didn’t do themselves much credit as they ducked, covered, cringed, and pratfell through a series of interview questions about the Iraq War. Still, Jeb Bush had a point when he noted that, at the time, “almost everybody” in political Washington was for the war. True enough: as policy disasters go, the Iraq War was as bipartisan as the subprime loan crisis

On the war’s tenth anniversary a couple of years back, the New Republic’s John Judis recalled “what it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” His memory jibes with mine: it was pretty damned lonely. Well before “Shock and Awe,” hawkish arguments had achieved near full-spectrum dominance over the minds of Beltway policy elites, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq was shaping up as a horrific idea whose time had come. Hayek Auditorium, December 13, 2001

But it rankled a bit when Judis wrote that “except for Jessica Mathews at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington’s thinktank honchos were also lined up behind the war.” Not to take anything away from Ms. Mathews, but the late, great Bill Niskanen had to count as a “think tank honcho” if anyone did, and he opposed the war vigorously, early, and often.

In a December 2001 public debate with former CIA director James Woolsey, Niskanen, then Cato’s chairman, offered the first prominent public statement by a DC think-tank leader against that looming debacle: “An Unnecessary War Is an Unjust War,” Bill argued. In the run-up to the invasion, other Cato scholars argued, among other things, that:

At the time, opposition to the Iraq War was controversial even within the building—and outside of 1000 Massachusetts Ave., Cato’s Iraq War skeptics had very little company among the Beltway cognoscenti. 

A Word about “Gotcha Questions” and Personal Responsibility

A peculiar tic of contemporary American nationalism is the notion that the American state, particularly if helmed by a Republican president, makes no errors of commission in its conduct of military affairs. No American war was ill-founded, or aimed at a threat that didn’t exist or didn’t warrant the effort. This logic never applies in the domestic sphere for Republicans, where government programs are at best naïve and bound to make problems worse or at worst, venal and Machiavellian.

This tic is the only reason I can think of that we’re actually sustaining a debate in 2015 about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Jim Fallows at the Atlantic argues that nobody should again ask a politician the question, since

the only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

I actually think this makes the case why the question should be—or at least should have been—asked, since at least one fortunate Republican son, Marco Rubio, belongs in Fallows’ bitter-ender camp. To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know that Rubio strongly opposes it, even with the benefit of hindsight.

But beyond the politics, a weird narrative has begun to emerge on the right that asking about the Iraq war is a “gotcha question.” Keep in mind: we are discussing a policy that was dreamed up by the Bush administration, marketed by the Bush administration, and purchased by the vast majority of our legislators, including the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.

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