If the GOP primaries taught us anything about policy, it’s that the Republican party has an Iraq problem. That’s a message that a plurality of voters sent as they dismissed one candidate after another in favor of Donald Trump.
To move beyond the Iraq War, Republican foreign-policy elites must begin by overcoming their decade-long discomfort with it. Learning from the war should not mean re-litigating it or indulging in breast-beating self-flagellation that cheapens the sacrifices of thousands who deserve our gratitude. But they should accept what the war looks like to most Americans.
In a word, it looks like a disaster. The war, by any measure, proved extraordinarily costly in blood and treasure. The 2007 troop surge rescued hope for political reconciliation in Baghdad, only for sectarianism to return and the Obama administration to squander what gains remained. By 2014, ISIS had stormed forth. Surveying the wreckage, most Americans have consistently considered Iraq a failure.
Debates about Iraq hardly defined the 2016 campaign. Immigration and trade dominated what passed for policy debate. But Iraq festered. Its stench soured the premises of Republican internationalism, even if many couldn’t recognize or name the source. For the last eight years, insecurity about the Iraq War’s legacy with the public has hamstrung Republicans on critical issues. They denounced President Obama for failing to enforce the “red line” he had drawn against the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, but they also disagreed on their own response. They attacked Obama for intervening in Libya and for leaving too soon, unsure which was worse. And they condemned the nuclear agreement with Iran but stammered when the White House said the choice was between the deal and Republican-led war. In each case, GOP foreign policy seemed trapped between “Do nothing” and “Reinvade the Middle East.”
It landed in this trap because foreign-policy professionals spent the post-Bush years mired in internecine debates over the tactical disputes of the conflict, or criticizing Obama for prematurely withdrawing — fixated on whom to blame rather than on what to learn. Democrats contributed by making Iraq a partisan issue shortly after many of them voted for the war, putting Republicans on the defensive. Weary voters beyond the Beltway awaited a frank discussion of the war’s lessons, or at least an acknowledgment that, however necessary and noble the invasion, it didn’t leave the United States better off. Instead, other than blaming Obama for Iraq’s collapse, the experts largely ignored the topic. They stopped explaining why U.S. leadership is necessary and, still stung by Iraq, equivocated on how to exercise it.
Trump filled this vacuum. While Iraq made other candidates wince, he blasted it with unprecedented force and prospered. His candidacy revealed that coming to terms with Iraq had become a litmus test. Although Iraq was far from the only reason Trump won the primary, it was one of many issues on which he succeeded by appearing to call it as it is. The primary contest also showed that there was more at stake than disagreements about tactics or strategies. Voters eager for a stronger posture seemed to fear that the GOP would revert to past approaches. Others simply rejected the principles that had long guided conservative internationalism. According to a recent Pew poll, 43 percent of Americans believe that the United States should “mind its own business internationally” — down slightly from a historic high in 2013, but a strong indication of pervasive wariness. The primaries hammered home that, for Republican voters, the Iraq problem wasn’t about policy so much as trust: about whether they could rely on the party to steer the ship.
Some may argue that because Republicans retained the House and Senate and won the White House, there hasn’t been a wide-scale rejection of traditional GOP foreign policy. But at the very least, Trump won in spite of his opposition to that approach, if not because of it. And any assessment of the electoral significance of foreign policy must transcend Trump himself, who merely exposed existing problems — Iraq central among them. The war is a spiritual sore, sapping voters’ faith in the establishment’s ability to navigate a host of broader challenges: determining when to intervene abroad, balancing values and power politics, and plotting America’s proper role on the global stage.
That conversation should begin by recognizing that primary voters distrusted sensible internationalist policies articulated by other candidates because they distrusted the instincts behind them. This requires foreign-policy experts to demonstrate that they have learned from the U.S. ordeal in Iraq and will anchor their foreign policy in those lessons going forward.
What are those lessons? We can sense what they aren’t. Obama shaped his foreign policy around “We’ll never do that again.” Though couched in nuance, it was a simple impulse that led to calamity. In Syria, for example, the outcomes that Obama sought to avoid — intractable conflict, humanitarian disaster, and proliferating terror — happened anyway, along with the strengthening of U.S. adversaries. Some Republicans likewise are drawing the wrong conclusions. Trump calls for radical retreat, while others support involvement abroad only to defend against dire threats. Yet Obama’s two terms of skittish engagement and dwindling moral and political leadership demonstrate the price of taking another step back from the international arena.
For most Americans, regime-change interventions are beyond the pale, and full retreat a bridge too far. The real intraparty debate lies between these two poles, and foreign-policy leaders must forswear further Iraqs but affirm U.S. primacy in the global order. Their post-Iraq foreign policy should have three watchwords: humility, credibility, and prudence.
The United States can’t slay every distant monster, but its prosperity and safety depend on keeping the worst of them at bay.
Iraq reminded Americans that foreign policy is tragic. Knowledge is incomplete, perception misleads, and choices involve excruciating trade-offs that range from bad to worse. Republicans shouldn’t fear discussing these limitations. Yet humility also can’t mean paralysis. Excessive modesty can mutate into weary self-righteousness, the kind of smug fatalism about our inability to influence events that has been on display over the past eight years. The United States can’t slay every distant monster, but its prosperity and safety depend on keeping the worst of them at bay.
To mount that defense, Washington must sometimes try to shape how states act beyond their borders — and in some cases within them, too. Republicans should show that they recognize this necessity, and that coercion, including force, can improve our position without automatically resulting in quagmire. But they should also make clear that regime change requires extreme caution. Policymakers know little about foreign societies and the cultural patterns that flow through their political life. Wielding influence among them requires extraordinary patience and wisdom. That’s why intervention should rest, as much as possible, on robust support from the American public, appreciation for cultural and historical factors, limited and achievable goals, and means consistent with the ends.
Republicans should also promise to preserve American prestige. Obama sees concern with credibility — that is, with whether other countries believe U.S. commitments and threats — as primitive chest-thumping. But he rightly says that Washington must better safeguard its resources. He also correctly argues that maintaining credibility can ensnare us in contests of will or protracted fights that are far worse than ignoring the initial provocation.
Yet credibility remains elemental to geopolitics. Successful diplomacy depends on accepting risk and, sometimes, threatening force to ward off war. By frequently refusing to accept risk, or doing so begrudgingly, Obama demoralized U.S. allies and encouraged challengers to probe. Bashar al-Assad mocks Washington by using chemical weapons; Iran browbeats it into concessions and harasses the Navy on the high seas. Our material power means less if we show unwillingness to use it.
When Trump vows to shoot Iranian boats out of the water or claims he would have gone home rather than use a secondary exit to disembark Air Force One, as China forced Obama to do recently, he is reacting crudely to Obama’s views on credibility. The Acela class mocks Trump, but he makes hay out of these symbolic moments because he knows that Americans care about whether their country is respected. It’s precisely because they care that they want to avoid humiliating conflicts. Worse than sending soldiers to liberate Fallujah, for many, was expending all that blood just to see the black flag of ISIS flutter over the city. Republicans should acknowledge Obama’s concerns about credibility, but they need to show that, alongside their newfound modesty, they have the confidence to defend American honor when necessary.
Most crucially, Republican elites need to transcend the battle between the philosophies of “realism” and “idealism.” Throughout the quarter-century saga of the United States’ involvement in Iraq, Washington often lurched between fighting for American values and dealing with complexities on the ground. George H. W. Bush abstained from marching on Baghdad but endorsed a Kurdish-Shiite revolt; Barack Obama hailed Iraq’s democratic development but sided with a Shiite strongman. The debate lies at the heart of the public’s lingering discomfort with Republican foreign-policy instincts, divides the party, and keeps Washington wobbling in strategic limbo.
Foreign-policy professionals need to reframe the conversation. Realism and idealism are, as Yale historian John Gaddis has put it, not “positive and negative electrical charges — either one or the other.” Instead, they are “at the opposite ends of a spectrum along which we act as circumstances require.” This is not a matter of applying morality in some contexts and pragmatism in others — they must go hand in hand. The United States has accomplished more for human freedom than any nation in history. Sacrificing our belief in universal liberty would betray who we are and win us no reprieve from global challenges. And moral clarity, from standing for democracy to advocating in behalf of political dissidents, gives Washington a strategic advantage against closed societies by exposing their contradictions and strengthening our natural allies within them.
If the spread of freedom is our goal, the question is how to achieve it. As Abraham Lincoln says to Thaddeus Stevens in the film Lincoln, “A compass . . . it’ll point you true north . . . but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms you’ll encounter along the way.” If you simply “sink in a swamp,” Lincoln asks, “what’s the use of knowing true north?” Our values are our compass; the challenges of geopolitics are the swamps. Sometimes we need to skirt them, other times to wade through; sometimes we double back, and other times we drain them. This is not the choppy aimlessness of splitting the difference, but rather the steady course of prudence — inexorably advancing toward our goal while navigating the complexities of the journey.
This may sound like the kind of nuance that Trump so effectively mocked. But he capitalized less on excess complexity than on scarce confidence. Republican foreign-policy leaders must trust Americans to understand the case for American primacy. In fact, despite Trump’s corrosive effects, a majority of GOP voters favor increased defense spending, vigorous counterterrorism efforts, support for our allies, and defense of Israel. GOP elites need to move beyond their old intellectual disagreements and make foreign policy visceral again. They need to explain the American project: indicate its themes, describe its purposes, and set clear, realistic goals connected to our values. Foreign policy, just like domestic policy, depends on popular support. This is especially true in a post–Cold War world, in which, despite the many threats we face, our global role depends not on any obvious existential threat but on our own vision.
Only that kind of public airing can telegraph that Republican elites are grappling with America’s legacy in the Middle East and plotting a course forward. They can devise new plans and criticize Democrats, but until they reckon with Iraq, few will listen.
— Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a former staff editor of Foreign Affairs and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University. A version of this article first appeared in the November 21, 2016, issue of National Review.
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