Yesterday I wrote you some thoughts about the shallowness of the “Is social conservatism ruining the Republican party?” debate. I said it distracts attention from a number of distinctions that merit consideration if we wish to understand people’s political allegiances. Today I’d like briefly to consider these distinctions’ application to one issue and one man: the Iraq War and George W. Bush.
I will not try to justify any judgment of either, although my opinions will show through; let’s save the justifying for another day. What I wish to do instead is offer some broad-brushstroke description of the way Bush and the war have come to be seen, in slow motion and over many years. These brushstrokes are the landscape upon which voters formed many more particular views. Consider what I say in the light of your own observations and ask whether it contains any truth.
I’ll organize my comments with reference to the distinctions I introduced yesterday, though the order will be different.
Brand-name voting versus rational-analysis voting.
What I think is that the Iraq War ruined President Bush’s brand and President Bush ruined the Republican brand. I think that’s what sank us in 2006 and 2008. Sure, there were scandals, there was rampant spending and government bloat, there was a charismatic Democratic nominee, and in the final weeks of the ’08 campaign there was a financial crisis that sealed John McCain’s fate. But I think it was his fate. It probably would have been the fate of any Republican nominee.
Bush survived the ’04 election largely by running a national-security campaign. The memory of 9/11 was fresh and Iraq had not yet descended into the sectarian bloodbath that turned “We can’t police a civil war” into a pungent sound bite. (The Golden Mosque bombing, recall, happened in early 2006.) It helped in ’04 that the Democrats nominated a man with the warmth and charisma of Massachusetts cod. The WMD hadn’t turned up and there was a growing consensus that the war had been fought on a false premise, but the feeling was still: It’s a dangerous world, and now is no time to rock the boat.
Then Iraq really went to hell. A perceived mistake became a perceived catastrophe, and most people just wanted to be done with it. They wanted to be done, too, with the man and the party who had brought it to them.
These attitudes were not, in my opinion, the product of rational analysis, because the impulse behind them was more punitive than corrective, more backward- than forward-looking. Was the Iraq War unwinnable in 2006? Manifestly not, as the surge has shown. Was there serious discussion in 2006 of whether the war was unwinnable? Not really. A relative handful of specialists debated the question, but in the main one side asserted yes, the other no, and that was that.
To my mind, this was a frightening thing. It would have behooved us, amidst all the recriminations, to spend some time on questions like these: How does one recognize an unwinnable war? Should we be thinking in binary alternatives — winnable versus unwinnable — or should we be looking at things probabilistically? Should we be making, that is, a cost-benefit analysis — and what is the right analysis here? What are the consequences of this defeat? Does it embolden al-Qaeda? Does it destabilize the region further? How about Iran — will it not gain tremendously from our loss? And that’s not to mention the human cost: After what we have put the Iraqis through, should we not demand a very high standard of certainty that the war is in fact unwinnable before abandoning them? (If you would like to read my thoughts on this last question, you can find them here.) But that framework isn’t suited to vengeance — and we were out for blood.
Social issues versus moral issues.
Say what you will about Bush’s social conservatism, it was nothing new. In fact, it fell short of many social conservatives’ expectations. New was: Halliburton blood for oil torture Guantanamo domestic spying extraordinary rendition — plus ample (and amply televised) doses of death death death death death.
Consider the remarkable traction of the slander that “Bush lied, people died.” I had variations of it repeated to me by many well-educated non-extremists. None of them could justify it beyond pointing out that WMD stockpiles had not been found in Iraq. If you told them that the administration’s claims about Iraqi WMD were consistent with the views of just about every intelligence agency in the world, and that there is a difference between a lie and a mistake, they hardly cared. If you explained that, had the administration really been after Saddam’s oil, there were much cheaper ways of getting it, they hardly cared. They just knew Bush was a liar.
It is a special irony that the president who spoke in the most idealistic language since JFK has been branded a tyrant. Criticize his “freedom agenda” if you like, but don’t tell me he didn’t mean it. Decry his judgment if you like, but don’t tell me he is unmoved by suffering. Is there a president in living memory who cried more in public than Bush did? There he was with wounded troops, tearing up; there he was on TV talking about a 9/11 orphan, his lip quivering. Compassionate conservatism, expanded welfare state, funding for AIDS treatment in Africa on a scale that dwarfed Bill Clinton’s efforts — but it didn’t matter, because everyone just knew Bush was full of malice.
Then lo, who should appear but a messiah? It was Barack Obama’s genius to offer, not an alternative platform, but an alternative brand sold as a secular religion. “Hope” and “change you can believe in” would in other elections have been banalities, but in this election, context became content, and the content was contrastive: roughly, the Prince of Darkness versus the Light of the World.