The Iraq War Debate the GOP Won't Have

They're still dodging the most important question.

In polemical writing, what is left unwritten often says as much as the writing itself. Creating a clear and widely persuasive argument requires glossing over complexities and doubts. The writer’s anxieties hide in these gaps. Today’s political conversation about the Iraq war offers many examples of this, because it is an anxious subject for much of the political class. After all, support for launching the war was broad and bipartisan, but the war would become very unpopular. The war’s original backers find themselves in an ugly spot. If they reverse course and oppose the war, their opponents might accuse them of having made a major error of judgment. If they persist in supporting it, the opponent’s task is even simpler. There’s a mirror image of this problem for those who backed withdrawal from Iraq, given the rapid deterioration of the situation in the country. Almost everyone in politics thus avoids the most pressing questions about the war—and answers them incompletely when they arise.

An essay at National Review Online by David French is instructive. French cuts to the core of Democratic anxieties: by focusing their fire on the initial decision to go to war, they’re avoiding the harder questions that came later. Iraq is broken—can we fix it? How? Is it worth the cost? Can we abide growing Iranian and sectarian influence on Iraq’s politics? How should the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw—and the execution of that decision—be viewed in light of what followed: “a growing jihadist menace, genocide against Christians and other religious minorities, and increased instability in a geopolitically vital region”? The president’s promises of “no boots on the ground” have come to look both dogmatic and misleading—dogmatic because we are still participating in the war at great scale and expense, misleading because of the growing number of soldiers’ and contractors’ boots actually on the ground. The heiress apparent, meanwhile, has allegedly admitted that her opposition to the 2007 troop surge was motivated by political concerns, as opposed to strategic calculations. There are clearly questions that the Democrats would prefer not to address—questions about what French slyly calls “hard choices.”

The Iraq debate on the left, however, has been static for years, while the past two weeks have seen a dramatic shift on the right. Major 2016 candidates diving over one another to pounce on Jeb Bush’s prowar fumbles. One could be forgiven for thinking that the GOP is taking crucial steps towards restoring itself as the trusted party on foreign policy. Yet French’s diagnosis is more accurate: “It’s hard to escape the feeling that the unanimity in post-hoc opposition to the Iraq War among the GOP presidential contenders is born less from considered conviction than from an ability to read polls showing that the war is overwhelmingly unpopular.” Indeed, there is little evidence, aside from the singular figure (in the best and worst senses of the phrase) of Rand Paul, that the considered convictions animating the Republican foreign-policy discussion have changed. The lacunae in French’s essay show that the Republican return to foreign-policy dominance faces a long road.

French minimizes the significance of the GOP change, suggesting that the focus on the 2003 decision to invade “limit[s] our hindsight to the lessons we’d learned by 2005—when we were fighting a losing war in a deteriorating nation perceived to be devoid of WMDs.” He then raises the pragmatic concerns—what to do with the remnants of Iraq—that so vex the Democrats, and suggests that the GOP’s “staying power” strategy could have produced a better outcome. Fair enough—lesser empires have managed greater tasks. And the worries he raises about a post-American Iraq—jihadis, genocide, de-Christianization—are certainly valid. But he roars on to a thundering conclusion:

When Republicans say that they would not have toppled Saddam, here—in reality—is their message: “No, I would not topple a vulnerable regime that attempts to kill an American president, fires on American pilots, harbors terrorists, sponsors terror campaigns against American allies, violates cease-fire agreements with the American military, maintains stocks of chemical weapons, has launched multiple aggressive wars, and violates binding U.N. resolutions governing its weapons programs.” That’s not the message the next American president should send to an increasingly hostile and unstable world.

Moreover, he says, by attacking Obama’s handling of the Iraq war (“throwing away victory”) while questioning the original decision to invade, the Republicans forget that “there would have been no victory to throw away absent the invasion.” Worse, had we not overthrown Saddam, “the example of Syria shows that the alternative...wasn’t necessarily greater stability but potentially even worse genocidal chaos.”