Republicans face a major problem going into 2016: if you look at the electoral college, the Republicans can’t win. Among the many things the GOP should do, has it come time for Republicans to admit the Iraq war was a bit mistake?
If the GOP due to its existing coalition can’t take advice on rebranding, should it move to separate itself from a military venture that’s likely to be used by Democrats as a campaign bludgeon against Republicans for years — and be increasingly criticized by historians? Increasingly, voices are being heard against the war and some are calling for the GOP to make a clean break by admitting it wasn’t such a terrific idea.
For instance, Jeremy Lott, writing in RealClearWorld’s The Compass blog, makes the case that the time has come:
“I believe war in Iraq was a mistake.”
Eight words, eleven syllables, none of them tough to pronounce. Unless, of course, you’re a GOP presidential hopeful.
In a 2007 New Hampshire Republican primary debate the question was put to several GOP hopefuls, “Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?”
And, he notes, the answers ranged from evasive (Mitt Romney) to a passionate defense of the war (John McCain) and in other primaries the pattern held.
Many Republicans criticized President Barack Obama’s intervention in Libya and his attempted meddling in Syria. Absent criticism of Iraq, they risk looking like they’re only against foolish wars when those wars are proposed by Democrats. Which raises the question: Why should voters care about trading one set of bumblers for another, especially after that other group had proved itself incapable of learning?
The problem is that increasingly in American politics partisans of both parties don’t think about that. It’s all about attacking the other party when you can and defending your own party tooth and nail when you can. But what Lott is asking for is not a major, long, drawn out repudiation:
Any Republican seeking nomination for the 2016 presidential election should at a minimum be willing to admit Iraq was a mistake. it was an error that cost us upwards of $1.5 trillion, thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, while seriously hindering our efforts to track down the real culprits of September 11. (The war, incidentally, helped pave the way for a Nancy Pelosi-controlled House and a Barack Obama-controlled White House, as well.)
Republican pols are afraid to do so because they read American opinion polls. These polls show that either a large plurality or a bare majority of Americans think the war was a mistake. Those numbers would be much higher if Republican voters agreed with the majority. Since they need to win over Republican voters for the nomination, many presidentially-minded pols are reluctant to admit a Republican-sponsored war of choice was the wrong call.
They ought to take the chance and tell the truth. It would help restore the party’s credibility with the broad mass of independent voters and with those Democrats sick of the George W. Bush-Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton foreign policy framework. It would also force rank-and-file party regulars to either cease their misguided cheerleading or bury their own heads ever deeper in the sand.
On that score, count me an optimist. My sense is, truth would be a welcome relief in this debate. Republicans as a whole would rather not be weighed down, over a decade later, by a botched and unpopular war.
And it is indeed a case of a head buried in the sand, if you look at some of Gallup’s polls. In March, on the 10th anniversary of the war Gallup ran a compilation of polls. It found support for the war had risen one point — but still 53% considered it a mistake while 42% didn’t:
But Democrats will have their own problem on the Iraq war as well, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf points out:
The issue is going to be tough for Republicans to navigate, given that public opinion has turned against the war, even as powerful GOP factions still support it. Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are probably already gaming out their strategy. What’s less remarked upon is the challenge Iraq will pose for Democrats. The war was foisted on America by a propagandizing Republican administration, and Democratic hawks have been better than Republican hawks at acknowledging error. But as Daniel Larison notes, “Virtually none of the politicians mentioned as 2016 candidates in the GOP were even in national office during the Bush year,” whereas several prominent Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry, all have pro-war votes on their resumes. (And it’s hard to believe that any of those three were hoodwinked by Dick Cheney.)…
…There is next to no chance I’d vote for a Republican who thought the Iraq War was prudent, or showed an eagerness for more military interventions. But neither is it enough for a Democratic candidate to claim that the problem with the Iraq was the way that the Bush Administration executed it. Habitual hawks like Clinton have to clear a particularly high hurdle. And no one should be elected president without showing, beyond any doubt, that they understand why the war was a mistake and how to avoid like mistakes in the future..
Even four years ago some GOP Congressmen were saying — but not in primary battles — that most Republicans felt the Iraq war was a mistake. The real opinion on the war has almost been like one of those issues to be discussed in what Mitt Romney called “quiet rooms..”
Daniel Larison, writing in The American Conservative, also thinks Republicans need to stake out a new position on the war:
Naturally, I agree with Lott on what Republican politicians should do, and no one would be more pleased if would-be presidential nominees took this advice than I would be. In theory, it should be relatively easy for leading Republicans elected since 2008 to disavow the Iraq war and acknowledge what the majority already takes as a given. Virtually none of the politicians mentioned as 2016 candidates in the GOP were even in national office during the Bush years, and except for Santorum none of them has any particular reason to continue defending the war. Admitting that the Iraq war to be a mistake would be a healthy and sensible break from the Bush years, and it would demonstrate that there was some learning from Bush’s mistakes taking place inside the GOP. It would not be enough by itself to build up the party’s reputation for competence or wisdom in foreign policy, but it would be a much-needed and long-delayed start.
There are some obstacles to what Lott proposes. Chief among them is the difficulty that many hawks in the party still truly don’t accept that the Iraq war was a mistake. Despite the fact that by virtually any measurable standard the Iraq war was a senseless waste of lives and resources, they don’t consider this to be the truth, so they won’t greet it with relief. At best, many hawks will agree that the there were flaws in the execution, but they remain convinced that the original idea was sound. That wouldn’t matter quite so much if the people likely to be serving in the next Republican administration hadn’t mostly been long-time supporters of the Iraq war. However, because most of them are it will make it harder to think that admitting the war to be a mistake has much meaning for how the next administration will govern.
After all, the issue is not just whether the next Republican nominee can mouth the right words and reassure some skeptical voters, but whether the next Republican president understands why the Iraq war was a mistake and knows how to avoid making similar foreign policy errors.
And, historically, this has been a problem: whether a new President coming in is willing to learn the lessons of history or — to use the trite phrase — repeat them. Except in the 21st century, the growing political trait is to treat your party like a political sports team and defend their actions even if deep inside you know they are wrong and attack the other part or offer faint praise, even if you deep inside you know they deserve credit. Our political trending doesn’t show this reversing itself soon, if ever.
But part of the GOP now seems clearly inclined to rejection interventions in military affairs unless there’s a clearly spelled out reason. The National Review’s Michael Barone in March 2013:
Are Republicans no longer the party more inclined to military interventions and an assertive foreign policy?
It’s a question raised by the enthusiastic response to Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster and to his not-very-interventionist foreign policy…
It’s raised also by House Republicans’ willingness to accept the budget sequester, which includes defense cuts that former defense secretary Leon Panetta called “devastating.”
…………And it’s a question raised by the silence on the part of most Republican officeholders and the contrition of others on the tenth anniversary of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Only John McCain and a few others have been defending a war that almost all Republicans and many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, initially supported.
Historically, neither party has always been either hawkish or dovish. Democrats supported the Mexican War; Whigs were against it. Republicans backed Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; many Democrats wanted a compromise peace. Republicans supported the Spanish-American War and suppression of the Philippine insurrection; Democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against “imperialism.”
….But almost all congressional Democrats tried to stop George W. Bush’s successful surge strategy in Iraq. Hillary Clinton found cause to question the veracity of General David Petraeus. The surge came too late to salvage the reputation of the Iraq War. Polls now show majorities think the war was a mistake. Most Republican politicians seem disinclined to suggest we should intervene anywhere else.
Like so much, this is all about Republicans decide who they are and what kind of party they are. So they adjust to the 21st century with new candor and make the case that, yes, Republicans believe in a strong foreign policy and intervening when it’s necessary — but intervening smartly, when there is a proven reason, where the pluses outweigh the terrible financial and heartbreaking personal costs. Just defending your political sports team won’t do.
graphic via shutterstock.com
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.