Bring up Iraq — and expect to end up in an argument. Conservatives are no different from liberals in rehashing the unpopular war, which has become a sort of whipping boy for all our subsequent problems.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently enumerated countless pathologies that followed Iraq. Yet to examine her list is to learn just how misinformed we have become in our anguish over the intervention.
Noonan writes of Republicans: “It [Iraq] ruined the party’s hard-earned reputation for foreign-affairs probity. They started a war and didn’t win it.”
We can argue over whether the result of the war was worth the cost. But by January 2009, the enemy was defeated. There was a consensual government in Iraq, there were few monthly American casualties, and there was a plan to leave a small constabulary force to ensure stability and the sanctity of Iraqi borders and airspace.
Noonan adds that “it muddied up the meaning of conservatism and bloodied up its reputation,” citing as proof the preferable and prudent foreign policy of Ronald Reagan.
But Reagan had his own foreign-policy problems. Do we remember Iran-Contra, when some in the Reagan administration recklessly and illegally facilitated the sale of weapons to a terrorist Iranian government — a crime that stained conservative credibility on anti-terrorism for years to come?
That libertarians, paleocons, neocons, and the Republican establishment all argued over Iraq was natural — in the manner that the often “muddied” party split over interventions in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, and Libya.
Noonan believes that Iraq “ended the Republican political ascendance that had begun in 1980.” Hardly. Bill Clinton did that in 1992, when he defeated once-popular incumbent Republican George H. W. Bush (and then was reelected for a second term). Al Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush in 2000.
In truth, there is rarely either a Republican or a Democratic long-term ascendance or mandate — other than the natural challenge-and-response pattern of politics. Iraq became unpopular and was helping Democrats by 2006. Yet the specter of Obamacare in 2010 — and its reality in 2014 — may foster an even more influential swing-back in public opinion.
Did Iraq alone really undermine “respect for Republican economic stewardship,” as Noonan suggests? The war may have cost $1 trillion over a decade. Yet from 2001 to 2008, a Republican president (with help from a Republican-majority Congress for six years) ran up $4 trillion in debt — at that time, the largest borrowing of any two-term administration in the nation’s history.
At most, Iraq contributed 25 percent of that aggregate debt. The vast expansion in the size of the federal government and domestic spending levels not only eroded “respect for Republican economic stewardship” but discredited the Bush tax cuts, which, we seem to have forgotten, resulted in more, not less, aggregate federal revenue.
Noonan thinks Iraq “killed what remained of the Washington Republican establishment.” But George W. Bush was always seen more as an evangelical Texas heretic — his war opposed by most of his father’s establishment cabinet and, eventually, the Colin Powell moderate wing of the party.
What really killed off the blueblood establishment (if it is indeed dead) and spawned the Tea Party was largely disagreement on issues such as federal spending, debt and deficits, the size of government, entitlements, guns, abortion, and illegal immigration — in which grassroots populists argued that Republicans had become not much different from Democrats.
Noonan finishes by stating that when she withdrew her support for the Iraq War in 2005, she was “wronger than some at the start, righter than some at the end.”
The now-common confession of always opposing “some” is tantamount to tagging along with the majority who supported the war — only to flip along with that majority.
By 2005, when Noonan gave up on Iraq, millions of Iraqis and Kurds were still very much invested in the U.S. effort to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with something better. Tens of thousands of Americans were fighting and sometimes dying for that shared goal.
We can perhaps admire either those who were consistently against the war when it was at first unpopular, or those who kept their support when it became even more unpopular. But how does political convenience — in a war that hinged on the enemy’s destroying our morale — translate into courage or wisdom?
Had we given up on the war in 2005, there would not be a viable Kurdistan today or any chance of a stable Iraqi government. The reputation of the American military would have been shredded. For a power with global responsibilities, losing an unpopular war is even worse than fighting one.
There were plenty of mistakes made after the impressive three-week removal of Hussein — the failure to re-employ disbanded Iraqi soldiers, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the tenure of poor military leaders such as General Ricardo Sanchez. But the 2007 surge orchestrated by General David Petraeus to save Iraq was not one of them.
In short, blaming everything on Iraq is just as bad as blaming nothing on it.