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Lessons Not Learned
Will GOP Elites Finally Admit Iraq War’s Failures?

Writing in National Review, Jordan Hirsch bravely takes on a taboo subject in elite GOP circles: the failure of Iraq. A taste:

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.

The Iraq War clearly damaged Hillary Clinton, costing her the nomination in 2008 and handing Bernie Sanders ready-made attack lines in 2016. Obama’s election was in part a consequence of the failures of Iraq. So is Trump’s, as WRM noted in his WSJ op-ed on Saturday:

After Pearl Harbor, Jacksonian America roused to fight the Nazis and Japan. After 9/11, Jacksonians were eager to do the same in the Middle East, particularly after they were told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. When Iraq turned out not to be such a threat, Jacksonians felt betrayed.

Many of them voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 out of disillusion with the neoconservative agenda of war and democracy activism. Mr. Trump’s criticisms of the Iraq war and President George W. Bush struck a chord in Jacksonian America.

It’s well past time that Republican elites admitted the hard lessons of the Iraq War. Kudos to Hirsch for kick-starting a necessary conversation. You should go read the whole thing.

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  • Andrew Allison

    In hindsight, the Iraq war was clearly a mistake, but let’s not overlook: “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.” Obama owns the resulting disaster, not just in Iraq, but throughout the Middle East.

    • gabrielsyme

      Obama ought to own it, but the media continues to hang it all on Bush, despite the surge and the decent position he handed off to Obama in 2009.

      The main lesson here is for Republican administrations never to engage in policies that are likely to require competence from future Democratic Presidents: the Democrat will most likely foul things up, and the Republican party will be blamed in the media.

  • FluffyFooFoo

    The United States should have ignored Iraq like it ignores Venezuela. Leave the rest of the world to its own devices. Let them fail and succeed as they will.

    • LarryD

      Alas, Saddam was providing training grounds for Al Qaeda, ignoring him was not in the cards. All the talking heads, Democrat as well as Republican, agreed he was someone we needed to do something to, before the terrorist he has supporting did something to us again. (This was while were were still stepping on the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

      Venezuela is not a security issue for us, despite how much Chávez and his successor Maduro scapegoat us for their problems.

  • Dale Fayda

    I supported the Iraq War then and I support it now. Saddam’s Iraq was not like today’s Venezuela. It had one of the largest militaries in the world, it was aggressively striking out in directions (Iran, Israel, Kuwait), it had and USED chemical weapons both against external enemies and its own population of a mass scale, it had been working on developing its nuclear capabilities before the Israeli air strike in back in 1981 set them back and last, but not least, it was a grotesque brutal and homicidal dictatorship.

    Even that other Democrat foreign policy incompetent, Bill Clinton, recognized that and signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which explicitly called for regime change in that country. It was passed unanimously in the Senate and overwhelmingly in the House. A quick stroll down memory lane will remind everyone of the high degree of support for the Iraq war both among the general population and among the commentariat at the outset. Leaving Saddam in power indefinitely, after he had re-built his military and further consolidated his power after horrifically crushing the Kurdish uprising after the first Gulf War, was not an option. Does anyone think he was going to settle down and behave, like Gadaffi?

    At the end of 2008, the war was effectively won and the country was relatively quiescent. A few more years of stability with a significant American presence in-country, could have produced something half-way decent. That country will never be a “slice of heaven”, being that’s it’s populated by primarily by fanatical Moslems, but it had potential. All of that is “past tense”, of course, thanks to our boy-king.

    • Adam Bowers

      Wow. Can I have some of what you’re smoking?

      • Dale Fayda

        Ouch, that one hurt. [sarc]

        Thought real hard on that one, ha?

        • Adam Bowers

          Work smarter, not harder.

          • Dale Fayda

            You’re not working at all, dingus. This is a discussion forum, not a pissing contest. Post some cogent arguments or be gone.

          • Adam Bowers

            Then why are you posting?

          • Dale Fayda

            Weak, son. Very weak. I can feel your self-regard ebbing away from you.

          • Adam Bowers


          • Dale Fayda

            “Your penchant for going directly to ad hominem attacks? ”

            You’re joking, right?

          • Adam Bowers

            Here’s your comment history for anyone else that cares to look ( You’ve gone straight calling me a dingus twice now. You will also notice a wealth of belligerence. Essentially, you just come across as an asshole (see what I did there).

          • Dale Fayda

            Dingus (that’s thrice now), you haven’t posted a single relevant argument in this string, not one. Has that escaped you attention, special snowflake?

            It is you who went straight to asking me what I was “smoking”. And you got the cojones to talk about “ad hominem attacks”? Are you for real, precious?

            You were born a dingus, live as a dingus and will die a dingus.

          • Adam Bowers

            “Dingus (that’s thrice now), you haven’t posted a single relevant argument in this string, not one. Has that escaped (sic) you attention, special snowflake?”

            Implying that you were smoking a psychotropic substance while you mashed out that laughable screed regarding Iraq is in fact a commentary on your post. You’re just not capable of seeing it, apparently.

            “You were born a dingus, live as a dingus and will die a dingus.”

            You must be fantastic company in social settings.

          • Dale Fayda

            My implication that you’re a dingus is just as valid as your implication that I was “smoking a psychotropic substance while you mashed out that laughable screed regarding Iraq”.

            Except I backed mine up with some actual commentary on the topic under discussion and have engaged in respectful dialogue with others, who have graciously posted their thoughts.

            What do you have for us, dingus?

          • Adam Bowers

            I don’t think you understand the difference between an implication and a declaration. You just can help yourself can you? Do you interact with others in a similar manner out in the world? Are you capable of communicating with others without frothing petulance?

            “What do you have for us, dingus?”

            It’s absurd that we still have such hard headed neoconservative imperialist thinking after the utter disaster that was the Bush Jr. presidency. In order to remedy this assine thinking, I propose you and other imperialist blow hards volunteer your services directly. I’d rather not have my family members and colleagues have to go back.

    • (((kingschitz)))

      Dale: I respect your views because up until several journeys to Iraq post OIF-I (not as military) they were my views too. And I still agree with your sense of how murderous and unstable Iraq was under Saddam.

      However in the years since, I’ve begun to wonder–were there any alternatives to Paul Bremer and nation-building? And as I’ve gotten crankier with age, I’ve also begun to wonder whether the Truman-Eisenhower solutions to these sorts of problems– assassinations and fomenting coups–weren’t superior. Obama has certainly elevated assassination to daily bread and decapitation strikes against non-state actors now make page 3 of the NYT. FDR backed the Somozas in the 1930s with the famous line, “our son-of-a-bitch”; other than allowing US entities the right to pull fruit out, Roosevelt could’ve cared less what Somoza did to sustain himself. We need to relearn some of this.

      In short, I still believe that with better intelligence and more patience, we could have taken out Saddam and replaced him with “our son-of-a-bitch.” And it would have been so much cheaper without empowering Iran.

      • Dale Fayda

        Saddam was the head of a Baathist regime and of a huge military establishment, not to mention a father of two psychotic sons, who held high positions in the government. Taking out Saddam would have changed nothing – one of his sons or another Saddam wanna-be from within that regime would have stepped in and perhaps acted even more aggressively, given that the previous leader was removed by the US.

        As I mentioned before, Saddam’s Iraq was not an insignificant “banana republic” like Nicaragua in the 1930’s. It was a major regional military power, with a conventional military dwarfing anything in the vicinity. A well-placed drone would not have changed that balance of power at all, just like taking out Kim Jong-un will change nothing in the political/military make-up of N. Korea.

        • (((kingschitz)))

          With respect, disagree here. Saddam’s large but somewhat dysfunctional (and obsolete) military establishment was not, ipso facto, a threat. Saddam’s family could have been dealt with (that is, killed), including his psychotic sons, without having to send a 200,000 man posse to capture or kill them.

          In fact, the CIA had been negotiating with Iraqi sub-leadership to do precisely this, until foiled by Saddam’s internal security services. But that was no reason to risk regional destabilization. It would have required more time and more ingenuity to find another candidate. And with enough patience, there’s always another candidate.

          I raise these issues because, with the US public unwilling to send any more large posses or finance some Toledo-on-the-Euphrates, Trump may have to consider “regime change” in a few places along the Truman-Eisenhower lines. I don’t believe that the CIA has been up for this since Sen. Frank Church, Jimmy Carter and Stansfield Turner burned them during the 1970s, but we better get ready.

          • Dale Fayda

            The failure of the policy you advocate has been amply demonstrated in Libya. Obama’s strategy of removing a dictator “on the cheap” ended up exploding in his face with the force of a thousand dying suns. Now the country is a charnel house; civil war, a haven for virulently anti-Western jihadists of all stripes, including ISIS and a major point of embarkation for the Muslim hordes invading Europe.

            These days, what happens “over there” doesn’t stay “over there”.

            Oh, and I hear ISIS is constructing a back-up capital in Libya.

            Once again, I believe that taking out a leader of a hostile nation, which also possesses a relatively large and sophisticated military & political apparatus does not change the calculus much, in most cases.

            Putin’s Russia without Putin will still be more or less the same vis-a-vis the US, so will N. Korea without Kim, China without Xi and so on.

      • Angel Martin

        Iraq certainly ended up a huge failure when Obama threw what was achieved on the ground and walked away. And the de-Baathification was a major error – for one thing it created a huge law enforcement vacuum that US troops were not able to fill.

        But even if a post-Saddam Sunni “strongman” had been installed, what would that Iraq look like after the Arab Spring ?

        Is it realistic to believe that ISIS would not have spread from Syria to Iraq, regardless of who was running Iraq ?

        • (((kingschitz)))

          I would argue that in Iraq, there was a factor that likely would’ve insulated any Sunni regime— they are a 40% minority controlling 60% Shiites. And like their Shiite counterparts in Tehran during the Green Revolution they would’ve killed as many as necessary to quell riots.

    • FluffyFooFoo

      Hasn’t invading Iraq empowered authoritarian Iran? Saddam showed himself to be a threat, but not on the same level as Iran. Iran is going to be getting nuclear weapons now.

      I also supported the Iraq war. I’ve made the arguments you’ve made over and over again throughout the years. I can’t deny it has turned into a righteous mess.

      • Dale Fayda

        Iran ended up “empowered” because Obama’s cutting-n-running created a power vacuum. If the US had maintained even a token military and diplomatic presence in the country, so it could exercise significant degree of influence, Iran would not have become a major player on that scene.

        • FluffyFooFoo

          Not entirely. Our intervention led to Shia Iraqi domination, and that let Iran into Iraq big time. I don’t disagree with your assessment of Obama’s failures in Iraq, but the original sin was invading Iraq without a real plan for Iraq or the region.

          What irks me though is the blame placed on the United States and Republicans. We were involved in Iraq because Saddam invaded Kuwait and the international community demanded action in 1990, but not action enough to remove Saddam from power. It’s international do goodism that is a problem too.

          • Dale Fayda

            The original “mistake”, for lack of a better term was invading with insufficient force-to space ratio to effectively secure the entire country long enough to allow a stable government to emerge. Where the American military sat, things were relatively OK; where it wasn’t, they spiraled out of control. In plain terms, it was a shortage of infantry to consolidate the situation on the ground. It’s a very common failing throughout military history.

            The Surge corrected that imbalance and restored comparative stability in a few short months. Once again, I’m well aware that Iraq was not and will not be a Jeffersonian democracy, but it is well within the scope of reason that an acceptably US-friendly, acceptably democratic and acceptably stable country could have emerged, had Obama not wanted to make good on his campaign promises, all previous gains be damned.

          • LarryD

            Part of the problem lies with the solution to the Thirty Years War. The Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years War between Spain and the Dutch Republic.

            “The Peace of Westphalia established the precedent of peaces established by diplomatic congress, and a new system of political order in central Europe, later called Westphalian sovereignty, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign states. Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A norm was established against interference in another state’s domestic affairs.”

            Western Civilization was exhausted, burned out on wars over forcing people’s religion. The new norm has held for nearly four centuries, but only in Europe and its descendant countries. The Middle East hasn’t been through this, and is still ready for more wars of religion. Westphalian sovereignty means you can’t overthrow a foreign government just because you object to it. WWII was the first crack, because the Nazis were intolerably evil, Germany had to be de-Nazified. And the US just wasn’t going to Japan start another war, but reform there was easier. We haven’t had any practice since, and the WWII generation is mostly dead.

    • Rodney

      I have enjoyed reading the response threads to this comment but have a question of my own. A little background. I was part of Desert Storm as a power plant operator on a CVN. In other words, I had a rear-echelon role and essentially saw a lot of water and no action. That said, I was uncomfortable with George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 because I didn’t think he had an adequate cassus belli. In addition, at the end of Desert Storm, I had concluded that if we went after Iraq again, it would be a messier affair because we would go in overconfident. Sadly, events proved me correct in that matter.

      A few years ago, I read Thomas Ricks book Fiasco, about the Iraq War. His explanation of decision making failures, etc., was interesting. He also noted that the U.S. had already done substantial damage to Iraq’s WMD program in the Clinton administration’s Operation Desert Fox. Does that operation impact your assessment at all? I don’t ask this as a Clinton fan. I am not. When my ship hosted Clinton’s first visit to a major military installation as president, I deliberately made no effort to meet him. You may remember in 1993 an interview he gave Barbara Walters in which she asked him how he expected to maintain the respect of the military since the officers and men of the USS Theodore Roosevelt were openly making fun of him in front of the press. For the record, I wasn’t involved in it, but the jab was, “I hear the president’s coming. I hope she brings Bill.” That memory still gives me a chuck.e.

  • Fat_Man

    The real mistake that Bush made was assuming the Democrats were patriotic Americans. When their turn came, Obama destroyed everything by a swift and total pullout that lead to the implosion of Iraq, and the birth of ISIS.

    Obama wanted to trade Iraq to Iran for a nuclear deal and a peaceful Middle East under Iranian hegemony. It was a daft idea, we now have a situation where we have surrendered all of our power and all of our negotiating leverage to Iran, Russia has become the dominant power, and the entire fertile crescent has become a scene of endemic warfare, that the parties are too weak to win and to strong to quit.

    The problem at the root of this is that the Democrat party was taken over by the Wallaceite, pro Communist wing in the 1970s. They see all foreign policy issues as a means for taking domestic power, and thwarting American interests and positions. They turned South Vietnam over to the Communist North, and called it peace. That became their template for solving foreign policy problems, one they applied to the Middle East. I doubt that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.

    Clearly no foreign action that must be sustained for more than one administration can be undertaken, while one of the major parties in the grip of anti-Americans.

    • Blackbeard

      Exactly right. The America that helped win WWII and then stayed in Europe and Japan for the next 60 years is gone and is never coming back.

      • Fat_Man

        It is 71 years since WWII, and we still have bases in WWII. 63 years in South Korea.

  • Frank Natoli

    When Democrat elites admit ACA failures, then maybe Republican elites will admit Iraq war failures [i.e., imagining democracy was the cure-all for all occasions].

  • FriendlyGoat

    There are a lot of ways to phrase a question, but in light of this election, asking if the GOP elites will be admitting any error is not one of the sensible ones. Whatever the Trump White House “admits” will be the only “admission” by all Republicans, either old elites or new elites.

    Trump has obligated himself to “knock out ISIS”, we recall. So Iraq is not a past-tense matter unless of course “knock out ISIS” was always on the (growing) will-be-caving-on-these-promises-as-soon-as-elected list.

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