The Iraq Litmus Test

Jeremy Lott of RealClearWorld insists that GOP presidential candidates in 2016 explicitly state that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake:

Any Republican seeking nomination for the 2016 presidential election should at a minimum be willing to admit Iraq was a mistake. It was an error that cost us upwards of $1.5 trillion, thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, while seriously hindering our efforts to track down the real culprits of September 11. (The war, incidentally, helped pave the way for a Nancy Pelosi-controlled House and a Barack Obama-controlled White House, as well.)

Republican pols are afraid to do so because they read American opinion polls. These polls show that either a large plurality or a bare majority of Americans think the war was a mistake. Those numbers would be much higher if Republican voters agreed with the majority. Since they need to win over Republican voters for the nomination, many presidentially-minded pols are reluctant to admit a Republican-sponsored war of choice was the wrong call.

They ought to take the chance and tell the truth. It would help restore the party’s credibility with the broad mass of independent voters and with those Democrats sick of the George W. Bush-Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton foreign policy framework. It would also force rank-and-file party regulars to either cease their misguided cheerleading or bury their own heads ever deeper in the sand.

I disagree with Lott, for a few reasons. The first is that political parties are networks, and any future Republican president will rely on personnel who were intimately involved in the decision to invade Iraq and in the attempt to pacify the country in the aftermath of the invasion. It is one thing for Republican presidential candidates to state that knowing what we know now, invading Iraq to eliminate the threat posed by its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction was ill-advised, because what we know now is that Iraqi capabilities were so badly degraded that it would have been exceptionally difficult, and costly, for the Iraqi state to develop and deploy WMDs. But there was great uncertainty about Iraqi capabilities before the invasion, and policymakers were dealing with limited information. Policymakers who were skeptical about the invasion for the right reasons, e.g., an informed belief that the costs of post-conflict stability operations would be unacceptably high as opposed to, say, reflexive opposition to the use of military force, deserve to have their reputations enhanced. This is different from arguing that presidential candidates who aren’t willing to state that invading Iraq was obviously a mistake even without the benefit of hindsight should be disqualified from consideration. 

That said, I think that it would be good and useful for Republicans to learn from Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the U.S. effort to defend South Vietnam, at a staggering cost in Vietnamese and American lives, as a “noble cause,” if also a cause that was not beyond reproach. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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