After days of halting answers from Jeb Bush, it now looks like a rough consensus is emerging in the Republican presidential field. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie all agree: If they were president and they knew that our sworn enemy, the terrorist-supporting Saddam Hussein, only possessed thousands of deteriorating chemical warheads — rather than thousands of fully functional chemical weapons — they would not have invaded Iraq. Their answers to this question — which was designed mainly to remind the American people how much they hated the Iraq War and to force Republicans to distance themselves from George W. Bush — are troubling on two counts.
First, they allow the Left to define the terms of the debate by limiting 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. But this is 2015, and we know much more — including that a chemical-weapons arsenal existed, that the insurgency could be defeated, and that the example of Syria shows that the alternative to deposing Saddam wasn’t necessarily greater stability but potentially even worse genocidal chaos.
Most importantly, hindsight also teaches us that American withdrawal from Iraq led to military disaster that cannot be easily reversed — much less stabilized — by a limited air campaign. So, knowing now what we didn’t know then, the answer is a smarter intervention, not the same intervention — an intervention that combines the tactics and lessons of the Surge with the staying power we’ve demonstrated in other volatile hot spots, like Korea. The alternative — as we know — is a growing jihadist menace, genocide against Christians and other religious minorities, and increased instability in a geopolitically vital region.
On a deeper level, however, the answers raise doubts about leadership and resolve. We have learned multiple hard lessons since Vietnam — including the simple truth that limiting the application of military force tends to prolong military conflict without achieving decisive results. But there is perhaps no more important takeaway from the last 40 years than that presidents must continually and forcefully make an effective argument for the hard choices that are so often necessary when confronting insurgent enemies. Effective presidential leadership involves not just choosing the right commanders and overseeing the right tactics, but also using the bully pulpit of the presidency to make the case for the sacrifice necessary for success.
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.
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. But there’s space for leadership here — for a candidate to step forward and say that while mistakes were undeniably made, it was the right call to remove Saddam from power, that our nation would be more secure had we stayed the course in Iraq, and that if the post-Holocaust vow of “never again” means anything, it means we can’t stand aside and allow jihadist savages to exterminate Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Right now, Republican candidates are attempting to have it both ways — to cleanse themselves of the alleged “original sin” of the Iraq invasion while calling out the Obama administration for throwing away victory. Yet there would have been no victory to throw away absent the invasion. Indeed, we would potentially be in an even less favorable position than we are now to oppose ISIS (or similar jihadists), with all of Iraq imploding, including Baghdad.
Public opinion is a fragile thing, subject to immediate change in the face of catastrophic events. Let’s not forget that the actions of a single, heroic cop are all that saved us from an ISIS-inspired massacre in Garland, Texas. If successful, that attack would have shaken the nation every bit as much as the Boston Marathon bombing, but with the twist of a defined enemy to retaliate against. Yet Republicans seem to be allowing public opinion to define the terms of their national-security leadership rather than using leadership to shift public opinion.
#related#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.
— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.