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Elections 2016
Ghost of Iraq Still Haunts the GOP

Donald Trump has been accusing George W. Bush of lying about WMDs in Iraq, inspiring glee in liberals and shock among many establishment Republicans. Campaign watchers predict it won’t play well in South Carolina and beyond, and at Saturday night’s debate Trump was loudly booed for his remarks (by an audience he claimed was made up of Republican donors). In TIME, Joe Klein asks a question we’ve seen others echo: “Can he say absolutely anything at all and still win the Republican nomination?” That remains to be seen—but Trump’s Iraq tirade may not be as offensive to his core Jacksonian base as some pundits seem to think.

As WRM has written, Trump’s ultra-nationalist rhetoric is calculated to appeal to Jacksonian America, and that’s as true here as it is on immigration or ISIS or entitlements or trade. Republican leaders have taken heat on Iraq from Michael Moore-style liberals and Rand Paul-style libertarians, but they haven’t yet contended with Jacksonian America’s specific qualms with the war.

Jacksonians were strong early supporters of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq—both because they felt more of a cultural affinity with Bush’s patriotic message than that of his shrieking liberal critics, and because they believed that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Iraq’s WMD program posed a direct threat to the American people. But unlike most of the GOP’s foreign policy leadership, Jacksonians are skeptical of state-building projects and U.S.-driven democratization in the Middle East. Jacksonian America’s support for the Iraq war was motivated by its sense of honor and patriotism—its willingness to deal out overwhelming force against America’s enemies—not by abstract ideals of democracy and human rights.

After 9/11, Jacksonians rushed to their nation’s defense. They joined the army in large numbers, they unflinchingly supported the War on Terror, and they stood by the Bush administration told the world that Iraq had WMDs. But after U.S. troops deposed Saddam Hussein and enriched uranium and chemical weapons were nowhere to be found, the justification for the war that had resonated most with the Jacksonian worldview fell apart—even as the war’s architects continued to defend it on the grounds that America was obligated to enforce U.N. resolutions, or that the Iraqi people deserved to be liberated, or that the war favored America’s long-term strategic interests in the Middle East. Such arguments surely appeal to the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians in the party, but they likely felt like a betrayal in at least some quarters of the party’s Jacksonian base. So even if they don’t agree with Trump’s ravings about WMDs—or his more radical conspiracy theories about the Bush administration—Jacksonian America might be drawn to Trump’s willingness to say what has previously been unsayable in GOP circles when it comes to foreign policy.

One can argue about the merits of the Iraq War forever, and it’s certainly clear that President Obama’s Jeffersonian foreign policy isn’t a compelling alternative. But Obama’s failures—which are likely to help the GOP in the general election—make it easier for Republicans to overlook that it wasn’t just liberals and libertarians who have serious misgivings about Iraq.

Trump has opened up a painful wound within the GOP, one that establishment Republicans will need to reckon with more thoroughly, lest it come back to bite them the next time they control the levers of American foreign policy.

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  • lukelea

    Jackson would have kicked Afghanistan’s ass, not let Osama escape, and then have come back home.

  • Pete

    Come on Mr. Mead. Can’t you see?

    S.C. is an open primary state. Trump is essentially appealing to independents and Democrats to come and vote for him in the GOP primary. After all, what choice does a sane Democrat have? He/she can’t vote for the PIPS or that old socialist, so Trump looks attractive.

    As for George W. Bush, he forever dirtied himself with his compassionate conservatism, being soft on immigration, and claiming that islam is a religion of peace.

    W campaigning for ! will have no positive effect.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “Jacksonians were strong early supporters of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq—both because they felt more of a cultural affinity with Bush’s patriotic message than that of his shrieking liberal critics, and because they believed that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Iraq’s WMD program posed a direct threat to the American people. But unlike most of the GOP’s foreign policy leadership, Jacksonians are skeptical of state-building projects and U.S.-driven democratization in the Middle East. Jacksonian America’s support for the Iraq war was motivated by its sense of honor and patriotism—its willingness to deal out overwhelming force against America’s enemies—not by abstract ideals of democracy and human rights.”

    Its wrong to think that all we Jacksonians are as knee jerking as the shrieking liberal pacifists. For many of us it was the humane and worthy thing to do, to spend American blood and treasure to drag the 1 billion people trapped in the backward and murderous Islamic Culture into the modern civilized world.

    After 9/11 most Americans recognized that something had to be done about the murderous, backward, and inferior Islamic Culture, and its continuous spawning of Jihadists. Going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was insufficient leverage to change Islamic Culture. And so it was decided to plant a seed of the Superior American Culture in the middle of Islamoland Iraq. That the stupid political leadership never specifically stated our real objective, or the commitment necessary for success, and instead talked about WMD’s and getting rid of a murderous Hussein was the worst mistake of the Bush administration.

    This “Superior Culture Strategy” would have worked, just as it did in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, had America’s political leadership been competent and committed. In Fact, the “Arab Spring” was the first evidence of success, that the Islamic Culture was changing across the middle-east and north Africa. But now with Obama’s cowardly and precipitous withdrawal, Iraq is as much a failure as Vietnam, in terms of time, blood, and treasure. And America is left will no real “Strategy” for draining the swamp of Islamic Culture that is spawning all these murderous Jihadists, or making those 1 billion people contributing members of the civilized world.

    • GS

      Civilizations are at the root of people’s identities, and their identities they defend to the last, tooth and nail. To fight a war of transcivilizing [“superior culture strategy”] would have meant to carry out a genocidal bloodbath – not even worth it. It should have been a short, and relatively cheap, punitive expedition, without any state-building and other such involved.

      • Clayton Holbrook

        “It should have been a short, and relatively cheap, punitive expedition, without any state-building and other such involved.”

        Like Libya?

        • GS

          Much more destructive, but otherwise yes.

      • CosmotKat

        While the radical left wing democrats continue to blame Bush he was acting on Clinton’s Iraq Liberation Act. The notion of building a democratic Iraq was spawned un the Clinton’s who, like Obama, talk a good game, but they never act on anything unless it puts money in their coffers and achieves the domestic transformation they seek. I think they call this self-interest and betrayal.

        • GS

          A “democratic iraq” is simply not possible [like it is not possible to make my cat into a dog: it is not there]. The only democracy in that bailiwick is a settler democracy of Israel. And the experience of Ataturk is extremely relevant: notwithstanding all his efforts, Turkey is sliding back to islamism, even if with a few “democratic” trappings. Every civilization has its own set of eigenvalues with regard to social organization. Political democracy is not in the list either in islamic civ, or, for example, in russia. Were they somehow to find themselves democratic, they would backslide at the first opportunity.

          • f1b0nacc1

            This reminds me of a description of ‘democracy’ in the Third World….”One man, One vote, One time….”

          • GS

            well, speaking of them, their eigenvalues set is: tribalism, sectarianism, strongman’s rule, or any combination thereof. What “democratic iraq”?

          • f1b0nacc1

            There never was a democratic Iraq, and perhaps there cannot (absent a major change to the polity) be one. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that, but sadly it is true….most of the region (and most of the Third World in general) is barely capable of self-governance (if that), much less democratic engagement.

          • GS

            the change would have to be not in “polity” but in the populations. The [hintingtonian] civilizations are stable on a millenium-plus timescale. Japan 1945 was a special case: a civilization organized around a single man who could be forced to order a civilizational surrender and was obeyed in that [no guerilla activity, for example]. Islamic civ has not had its hirohito since mohammed.

          • f1b0nacc1

            It didn’t have him even then….

  • WigWag

    “Our country never wins anymore.” (Donald Trump)

    The United States hasn’t won a “hot” war since 1944. Presidents of both political parties have been delivering failure for 70 years. Politicians embroil us in one military conflict after the next; military conflicts they have no intention of winning.

    Maybe it’s time to try a non-politician as Commander-in-Chief.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I am not sure that I blame the politicians (though certainly they deserve much blame) as much as I do the bureaucratic barnacles in DC. They prefer the stability and predictability of a familiar world, and victories, particularly military ones, tend to undermine that. Wars are chaotic things, and the ‘crats hate chaos….much better to have it run in an orderly fashion….victory would only mess that up….

    • bottomfish

      What about the first Gulf War?

      • WigWag

        We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the First Gulf War.

  • jeburke

    Donald Trump as Andrew Jackson? What an insult to Old Hickory! Trump, the serial draft dodger? Trump, the casino developer? Trump, the serial adulterer and foul-mouthed clown? And whag evidence is there to demonstrate that those who “rushed to their nation’s defense” and “joined the army in large numbers” are more likely found among Trump supporters than others? Not a shred. In fact, Trump has said 100 times himself that he opposed the war in Iraq from its outset. The Trumpbots I know are old fat men who, like Trump, never wore their nation’s uniform. The fact that some elements of Trump’s support in polls overlaps geographically with the West of 1820 is not much proof of his affinity with Jackson.

    Face it: Truml is nothing more than an artful, media-wise demagogue for our times — more Huey Long than Andrew Jackson. If Old Hickory were around today, I suspect he would call out the cowardly bilionaire for a horse whipping.

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