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Iraq 10 Years On: A GOP Boat-Anchor?

Peggy Noonan poses the question today, “Can the Republican Party Recover from Iraq?”  If the article is behind the paywall, here’s a relevant sample:

Did the Iraq war hurt the GOP? Yes. The war, and the crash of ’08, half killed it. It’s still digging out, and whether it can succeed is an open question. . .

It ruined the party’s hard-earned reputation for foreign-affairs probity. They started a war and didn’t win it. It was longer and costlier by every measure than the Bush administration said it would be. . .

After Iraq it was the Republicans who seemed at best the party of historical romantics or, alternatively, the worst kind of cynic, which is an incompetent one. Iraq marked a departure in mood and tone from past conservatism.

At dinner last Wednesday night in Washington with about a dozen important conservatives, a well-known journalist from our ranks went around the table asking each of us to answer the question, “Iraq—yes or no?”  The vote was almost evenly split, with a slight advantage to the “No” side.  I was among the “no” vote, though with the qualification that a purely punitive attack on Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein was fully justifiable, accompanied with a quick withdrawal and a warning that if they stepped out of line, “we’ll be back.”  We’ve shown twice now that we can thump the country quickly in a pure contest of arms.  But that’s not the American style; we have to engage in “nation-building,” whether we call it that or not, because it is a distinctly unconservative undertaking.  Maybe such a punitive raid would have been a bad idea too, as it might well have left the country wide open to Iranian-Syrian domination (as though that hasn’t happened anyway to some extent).  It’s another reminder that sometimes there are no good choices, and leaders have to choose (which Obama may be avoiding having to do with Iran, Syria, and North Korea right now).

Hindsight is always perfect, so it is no fair to indict the Bush Administration for a lack of foresight that the protracted struggle in Iraq would reshape our domestic politics in a way that opened the route for Barack Obama to become president.  Nor should a conservative leader ever feel constrained by the irresponsible, demagogic, or opportunistic opposition from liberals.  Yet there are a few truths of American politics that ought to have been kept in mind, starting with the fact that the American people do not like long military engagements.  Heck, they don’t like relatively short ones (i.e., Korea) if they don’t go well.

So the Iraq War has done for the Republicans what the Vietnam War did for Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s.  Even aside from contributing to the rise of Obama, it has dissipated public support for a forward foreign policy, and constrained the options of current and future presidents for action against Iran, Syria, and North Korea.  Late in his life William F. Buckley said one of his two greatest regrets was his support for the Vietnam War.  It seems that for at least some conservatives, that view of Iraq has already taken hold.  There’s no evading this political fact.

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