The G.O.P. and the Ghosts of Iraq

This week has seemed like one big hangover from the George W. Bush era, with an incipient banking crisis recalling the 2008 Wall Street crash that disrupted the end of his Presidency and the twentieth anniversary, this weekend, of Bush’s catastrophic decision to invade Iraq. And yet the ghosts of history are never all that welcome in Washington. It’s a place that has a hard time looking back and an even harder time doing anything to rectify past mistakes. The capital has a case of “permanent historical amnesia,” as Heather Conley, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, observed to me over lunch the other day.

Which made it all the more notable when the Senate met on Thursday to take a key procedural vote on a measure to repeal the two-decade-old authorization that provided the legal basis for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. When I spoke with Senator Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who has spent years sponsoring the effort, he told me this was the first time Congress was poised to roll back such a measure since 1971, when it repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that authorized escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. But that vote came in the form of an amendment to another bill, without the reckoning that a full-fledged debate might have offered. “The last time we’ve had a stand-alone vote on the floor,” for something like this Iraq repeal measure, Kaine noted, “is probably before anybody in the Senate was born. It’s just something that we’ve abdicated.”

Timing is everything in politics, and, for Democrats, the fact that the debate was happening the same week as the twentieth anniversary of an invasion that Kaine called “a huge mistake” was no coincidence. This scheduling offered not only a chance to reassert Congress’s constitutional power to declare war but also the nearly irresistible opportunity to make a political point about the historic folly of that particular war. In their remarks before the Senate overwhelmingly voted, 68–27, to invoke cloture and clear the way for a vote next week, both Kaine and Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, framed the repeal as a chance to finally and formally bring a legal conclusion to the Iraq War, and to, as Kaine put it, channel the political fatigue wrought by two decades of post-9/11 American conflict in the Middle East, to “end endless wars.”

It’s hardly surprising that Democrats would want to speak out against Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Many of them, including President Joe Biden, supported it at the time in 2003, but soured on the project after the extent of the military debacle became clear and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—the ostensible pretext for launching the war—turned out not to exist. What is more remarkable about the current debate is the extent to which Bush’s own party has been transformed since then.

Two decades ago, Bush and the Republicans were nearly united in their embrace of a brash militarism that sought to topple Saddam and transform Iraq and the broader Middle East in the process. Iraq, after paying a terrible price in the death of hundreds of thousands and disruption of millions of lives, was indeed transformed. But so, too, was American politics, where the backlash to the conflict arguably gave rise to the Presidencies of both Barack Obama—who first rose to fame as an antiwar state legislator—and Donald Trump. Trump is a Bush-basher of long standing, and he often framed his takeover of the Republican Party as an explicit repudiation of the extended Bush family and its internationalist legacy. Trump has said Bush “lied” to start the war, that he should have been impeached for how badly it was conducted, and that, over all, Bush had a “failed and uninspiring Presidency.”

Seven years after Trump won the White House by attacking the last Republican to hold the office, his views of foreign policy are now ascendant, if not yet dominant, in the G.O.P. Indeed, I cannot imagine the Party’s present state of inward-looking populism without the twin Bush shocks of the 2008 government bailout of Wall Street and the global overreach of the invasion of Iraq. Much as the Vietnam War did for a previous generation, the failures in Iraq shattered American confidence, shaped future debates over the use of military force, made the concept of democracy promotion itself suspect, distracted from rising threats posed by the revisionist great powers Russia and China, and splintered the previously unquestioned Republican commitment to a robustly internationalist American foreign policy.

Those rifts have been on full display this week, as leading lights of the party that brought us the Iraq War have publicly feuded over the enormous sums of American military assistance provided to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Trump, with his oft-stated public admiration for Vladimir Putin, is a longtime skeptic, and, on Monday, the other main contender for the Republican nomination in 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, publicly joined him. In a remarkable statement dismissing the war as little more than a “territorial dispute,” DeSantis seemed to signal how much he thinks Republican sentiment has shifted since the Bush era. You don’t have to support the disastrous invasion of Iraq to acknowledge that Russia’s barbaric war of aggression against its neighbor Ukraine is wrong, and yet that is where both Trump and DeSantis have now landed. DeSantis’s comments to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson—who night after night preaches to his TV audience against foreign entanglements, including in Ukraine—drew strong pushback from the remaining Republican hawks in the old Bush mold. The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it his “first big mistake.” Lindsey Graham called it a “Neville Chamberlain approach” of appeasement. Nikki Haley pointedly observed that DeSantis was just “copying” Trump with his new position.

DeSantis, back in the pre-Trump era of 2015, publicly bashed Obama for not providing enough arms to Ukraine. His flip-flop is so telling. There may still be Bush-style internationalists left in Washington, but it says everything about the trajectory of the Party’s foreign-policy thinking that both of its 2024 front-runners think that’s not where the primary voters they seek stand. Between them, Trump and DeSantis have support from nearly eighty per cent of the Republican electorate, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

It seems that Iraq Syndrome, like Vietnam Syndrome before it, is a thing. When we spoke on Thursday, Peter Feaver, a Duke University scholar of public opinion and foreign policy who worked for Bush’s National Security Council, saw the long shadow of Bush’s war hanging over the Party’s 2024 debates on Ukraine. Will that, he wondered, become the new Republican normal, “a reductio ad Iraqum,” to coin a phrase, in which “every time that America uses its power you have to give the ritualistic denunciation of the Iraq War decision, which is how Donald Trump approaches it”?

Former President Bush has long since retired from these public debates. Although he has been critical of Trump and said he did not vote for him in either 2016 or 2020, Bush has been wary of becoming the face of opposition to Trump and the sharp turn in the Republican Party that Trump represents. In private, though, Bush has never wavered from his insistence that the Iraq War was the right call. During a February 23rd private reception hosted by the Business Roundtable, held in honor of the publication of “Hand-Off,” a new book edited by the Bush national-security adviser Stephen Hadley containing the declassified transition memos sent by his national-security team to the incoming Obama Administration, Bush made off-the-record remarks defending his decision to invade Iraq. The former President told the crowd that it was the right decision at the time and he has no regrets, one attendee, a veteran of the Bush Administration, told me. He added, “Bush is completely unrepentant. It’s pretty stunning.” Feaver, who also attended, acknowledged Bush’s unchanged views. “I have never heard President Bush say anything different on Iraq than he said in his memoirs,” in which, Feaver recalled, “he made the case for why he made the decisions he made and why he thought they were still the right decision.”

Many officials other than Bush himself, of course, have admitted the invasion was a mistake, “a grave and costly error,” as the former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in The Atlantic this week. I believe there is a straight line that leads from that debacle to the political mess we are in today. Twenty years ago this week, I recall sitting in a beachside restaurant at a hotel in Kuwait, waiting for the invasion to begin and wondering if my friend, a journalist who had been through the political battles of the Vietnam era, was right when he warned several young American soldiers sitting near us that another Vietnam-like “quagmire” might be in store.

He turned out to be prescient. But neither of us imagined the consequences here in the United States, where two decades later it’s fair to say that the invasion of Iraq led not so much to a flourishing democracy in that country as it did to a struggling one here at home. ♦

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