During a friendly interview on Fox News, a Republican presidential hopeful from Florida was asked a simple question: Was it a mistake to go to war in Iraq?
“No, I don’t believe it was. The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq,” he said, adding, “Hindsight is always 20/20, but we don’t know what the world would look like if Saddam Hussein was still there.”
That interview took place in March; the candidate was Sen. Marco Rubio.
Less than two months later, the most extraordinary thing about former governor Jeb Bush’s statement that he would have authorized the Iraq war despite “knowing what we know now” wasn’t the statement itself, but rather the immediate backlash it provoked among conservative pundits and candidates for the Republican nomination. “You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do,” said conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham. “If you do, there has to be something wrong with you.” And nearly all of the party’s would-be standard bearers, including Rubio, pounced on the controversy. “Not only would I have not been in favor of it,” he declared, “President Bush would not have been in favor of it.”
The uproar on the right was especially remarkable given that hawkish foreign policy has become something of a litmus test in the Republican primary. At the recent South Carolina Freedom Summit, Rubio summed up his strategy toward global terrorism by quoting Liam Neeson’s character from the movie “Taken”: “We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.” In addition, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who previously suggested that his crackdown on Wisconsin’s public-sector unions prepared him to take on the Islamic State — told the crowd that the United States needs “a leader who is willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us.”
“None of the candidates seems willing to grapple with the possibility that there are unintended consequences to military action that we need to be wary of,” writes Paul Waldman in The Post. “And when you listen to them talk about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, the word they use over and over again is ‘weak.’ ” The problem is never that some situations we confront offer no good options, or that our decisions can backfire, or that there are places where the United States may not be able to set things right to the benefit of all. The problem is always weakness, and strength is always the solution.
The exception among GOP candidates is Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who responded to Bush by saying, “I think there’s a consistent theme here that every candidate should be asked, and that is: Is it a good idea to go into the Middle East, topple governments and hope for something better out of the chaos? Recent history seems to suggest you get something worse.” As a result of his views, Paul has been labeled “the chief cheerleader of Obama’s foreign policy” by Rubio, “to the left of Barack Obama” by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and “wrong and dangerous” by Republican attack ads that greeted his campaign announcement.
By now, most Republican politicians have recognized that a specific policy called “the Iraq war” is deeply unpopular, as evidenced by the three-quarters of Americans who say it was not worth the costs. Yet commentators fret over whether the war-weariness of the American people will keep the “indispensable nation” from doing what must done. And because most Republicans (and many Democrats) blame the entire debacle on false intelligence suggesting that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, Republicans have not confronted the failure of a worldview that sees military adventurism as the solution to our problems abroad. Indeed, as far as the party’s leading voices are concerned, the lesson of Iraq is that America can still police the world.
But the Iraq war was a failure of more than intelligence — and its consequences were predictable before it became clear that Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction. As the Nation editorialized in 2003, “The White House has withheld from Congress and the American people the true political, humanitarian and economic costs of the war and of the occupation that is to follow, but even by the most modest estimates, they will be staggering.” Today, we know the war cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. It also bolstered Iran’s influence and, as a college student reminded Jeb Bush, set the stage for the chaos that helped create the Islamic State.
Although Bush has disavowed his original statement, neither he nor his chief opponents have disavowed the hawkish worldview that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq. And, unfortunately, it’s a worldview shared by too many in the Democratic Party who have not learned their lesson. Indeed, it remains an open question whether Hillary Clinton has learned hers. What we should be debating in 2016 is how much the U.S. commitment to police the world detracts from dealing with the real security needs of its people and the globe. Such a real security policy would make military intervention a last resort and seriously address the growing dangers posed by the broken global economy, catastrophic climate change and metastasizing inequality.