President George W. Bush salutes Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001, as he leaves the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library
The 16th anniversary of the Iraq war last week was marked by a shortage of people defending the costliest foreign policy blunder of this young century, even in circles where support for that misadventure was once sacrosanct.
Former George W. Bush mouthpiece Ari Fleischer supplied a promptly ratioed tweetstorm that quibbled with the “Bush lied, people died” mantra concerning his old boss’s handling of the intelligence on Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Never Trumper David French gamely argued that Saddam Hussein was a greater source of instability than the chaos brought about by the invasion, followed by Barack Obama’s withdrawal. In so doing, French reminded us that, however off-putting some conservatives find Donald Trump, the president’s criticism of the war matters more to many of those who devote their time to denouncing his every utterance.
Yet even as the folly and injustice of Iraq congeals into conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, famously resistant to rethinking bipartisan military interventions no matter how ill-advised, it is an open question whether anything has changed. Dick Cheney’s protestations notwithstanding, the presidential wars largely continue unimpeded by the “America First” commander-in-chief.
John Bolton seems to have more say about when American troops will leave Syria or Afghanistan than the president of the United States. Trump’s second veto will almost certainly be of a bipartisan resolution rebuking—and terminating—U.S. support for the war in Yemen. We appear to be escalating in Somalia. Tensions are rising with Iran and Venezuela, with the administration trending toward a functionally neoconservative position on both despite major newspapers publishing pleas to retire that label.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. When Trump asks for plans to withdraw from Syria or draw down in Afghanistan, he apparently gets nowhere. When he goes public with his desire to see these interventions brought to a close, Senate Republicans reprimand him—albeit not by name—for a “precipitous” end to America’s longest war, as well as a second campaign they never authorized in the first place. Only four GOP senators voted with Trump.
But if Trump puts Elliot Abrams in charge of Venezuela policy at the urging of other reflexive hawks, that is hunky dory. Meanwhile, Robert Kagan is back in The Washington Post warning against the rise of global illiberalism abetted by populism and Trump’s use of the word “nationalism.” Advocates for forever war have their bases well covered no matter the political fate of this president.
The frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination voted for the Iraq war. The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee voted for the Iraq war. The Senate minority leader voted for the Iraq war, like his two immediate predecessors as Democratic leader. The House majority leader voted for the Iraq war, as did the vice president of the United States.
We have seen this movie before. Obama realized the dangerous mistakes our country was making in the Middle East. He campaigned as an antiwar candidate, especially compared to his 2008 Republican opponent (a man very much on the mind of the current president), and made some important course corrections. But Obama also ordered the surge in Afghanistan and approved a disastrous regime change project in Libya, differentiated mainly from Iraq by the refusal to put boots on the ground. So too did our Syria intervention begin, however fitfully, under his watch.
The default position of many of our political leaders appears to be: I must reluctantly conclude in retrospect that Iraq was a mistake we could not have possibly predicted, but must also repeat that mistake in virtually every trouble spot in the world that lacks a credible nuclear deterrent.
That is unacceptable. Or at least it should be. There is a glimmer of hope that Congress may be rediscovering its Article I constitutional war powers. It is also a positive sign that many Democratic presidential candidates have stuck to their pro-peace principles on Afghanistan and Syria rather than joining in the paroxysms of hawkish anti-Trump rage heard from their most fervent cable news cheerleaders.
Otherwise, U.S. foreign policy remains mired in the endless repetition of the movie Groundhog Day. Contra George Santayana, even when we remember the past, we seem condemned to repeat it.
The United States unquestionably faces real challenges at home and abroad, including the need to keep the country safe without metastasizing open-ended military commitments. The sooner we reject the mindset behind the Iraq war rather than just the tragic outcome of that one specific conflict, the better we will be able to meet them.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.