Those Who Play Politics With History’s Mistakes

In order to get Iraq right in 2014, politicians have to admit that they got Iraq wrong in 2003.


Since the White House announced plans to bomb Iraq on Aug. 7, a predictable set of Washington players has taken the opportunity to blame the Obama administration’s missteps for the capture of broad swaths of Iraq by radical jihadists. But while U.S. jets pound the Islamic State’s positions in northern Iraq, President Barack Obama has been firing back at critics at home.

When a reporter asked Obama last Saturday if withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq had caused the current situation there, the president pointed the finger back at the Bush administration and its supporters. "So that entire analysis is bogus and is wrong. But it is frequently peddled around here by folks who oftentimes are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made," the president said.

Meanwhile, the president’s critics, including notably Sen. John McCain, have accused Obama of not just doing too little in Syria or Iraq, but having "lost" a war in Iraq that George W. Bush had "won."

"We had the conflict in Iraq won thanks to the surge," McCain said. "If we had left a residual force behind we would not be facing this crisis today. Those are fundamental facts. And now we are paying a very heavy price."

Nevertheless, by claiming that the threat now metastasizing in Iraq vindicates Bush’s policies in the country, Obama’s critics are only reinforcing the president’s innate caution, while also making it harder for Americans to emerge from the long shadow of the Iraq War. The United States is unlikely to ever approach consensus over what to do about the Islamic State as long as proponents of robust U.S. policy persist in blind historical revisionism. In fact, McCain and others might do well to reflect on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, where McCain served with heroic distinction. It was from Vietnam that the Arizona senator recently issued another of his stinging broadsides, accusing Obama of setting up straw men when the president suggested that anyone opposing his approach to Iraq was trying to restart the ground war there.

What McCain forgets is that the searing Iraq experience has indelibly colored American views about the U.S. role in the Middle East and beyond. Even among Republicans — and even after the successful "surge" of 2007 — support for the decision to go into Iraq among Americans has declined precipitously and almost uninterrupted since the invasion was launched back in 2003.

In the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, Americans have demonstrably narrowed their appetite for overseas military intervention. Over two-thirds of voters from both parties told pollsters last month that U.S. military action should be strictly limited to direct threats to national security, as opposed to fulfilling the country’s inherent moral responsibility. Yet there is absolutely no consensus on whether the rampaging extremists in Iraq actually pose a threat to the United States, with a bare majority confident that what is happening there will have little or no effect on America’s security. While President Obama has invoked the plight of the stranded and threatened Yazidi population as a justification to act now in Iraq, he surely remembers that a year ago, 55 percent of Americans opposed his call for limited strikes in Syria, despite the ghastly videos of Syrian civilians dying from chemical weapons.

As these polls suggest, the domestic landscape is deeply hostile towards even limited military action to stop the worst human rights violations. Baseless triumphalism over the Iraq War and schadenfreude over the administration’s predicament will only further push Americans away from wanting to become involved in the Middle East, reinforcing the suspicion that Washington learned nothing from the Iraq fiasco.

The task for anyone concerned about the parlous developments in the Middle East is to persuade Americans that the previous administration’s blunders over Saddam Hussein’s illusory weapons of mass destruction should not prejudice the current administration’s efforts to deal with the very real threat of a brutal, highly capable extremist group attempting to take over the heart of the Middle East. That change in American public opinion won’t happen as long as proponents of greater U.S. intervention in Iraq run away from the reality of the Bush intervention.

Indeed, the charge of having "lost" the Iraq War only prompts critics of that war, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to issue pointed reminders of the litany of Bush-era Iraq mistakes. "We’re stuck listening to the very same neocons who pushed us into the Iraq War in the first place, as they try to plunge our military into another foreign misadventure," Reid said on the Senate floor.

Instead of measured consideration of the serious threats spilling out of Iraq and Syria, the polarized debate only hardens skepticism, reinforcing the widespread belief — particularly among Democratic voters — that the United States is better off letting the Middle East burn while Washington walks away.

Advocates of more robust policy, like McCain, must make a fundamental choice: Either they can attempt to rewrite the history of the last Iraq War and take political pot-shots at the president, or they can acknowledge the folly of the earlier misadventure and, in so doing, begin to build public support for an urgent struggle against a determined, audacious foe.

No one is in a better position to grasp the need to come to terms with a divisive war than McCain himself. Among the longest serving American prisoners of war in Vietnam, McCain is acutely aware of how acrimony over that war colored and complicated U.S. foreign policy. "No more Vietnams" became the clarion call of foreign policy from the moment the last Huey helicopter took off from the Saigon embassy compound in May 1975. Not until George H. W. Bush sent troops to Iraq in 1990 did the ubiquitous concern about avoiding another "Vietnam quagmire" truly recede.

Today, "no more Iraqs" threatens to paralyze American foreign policy while massively raising the bar for employment of hard power — anywhere — and reinforcing the president’s own, innate reluctance to employ it.

Senator McCain might also recall a crucial difference between the post-war debates over Iraq and Vietnam. Once the war ended, Vietnam hawks quickly abandoned the hyped characterization of the war as an existential test of U.S. power and prestige. Even those who believed the war could have been won largely conceded that fighting it was a mistake.

In other words, candor by the war’s proponents helped end the debate, even if the trauma persisted for years. Even prominent architects of U.S. strategy in Vietnam conceded their mistakes. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who oversaw the Vietnam escalation under President Lyndon Johnson, published a searching re-examination of what went wrong in Vietnam. He called it In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and used words like "failure" to characterize the war. McNamara wrote a companion volume devoted entirely to "the search for answers to the Vietnam tragedy."

In stark contrast, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s 2011 memoir Known and Unknown does not even include the word "lessons" in the index. Instead, Rumsfeld’s book is a litany of selective remembrances. He shifts the blame for the iconic errors of the war — the spurious weapons of mass destruction justification, the inadequate number of U.S. troops deployed, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison — to others or minimizes them entirely.

Searching for lessons implies failure. And there is little inclination among Iraq War architects and proponents to acknowledge even the most incontrovertible errors of the war: By wrongly invoking intelligence on alleged weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration fatally damaged the principle of pre-emption. By decapitating a minority Sunni regime, the invasion paved the way for Iranian projection of power in a country that had been Tehran’s most formidable adversary and sparked the sectarian conflict that continues to roil the Levant and Persian Gulf. By vastly underestimating U.S. force requirements, thousands of Americans were killed or maimed unnecessarily, as were more than 100,000 Iraqis. For none of this has there been any apologies or, it seems, even self-reflection.

Unlike Vietnam, the prideful, futile insistence on justifying an ill-conceived invasion and a botched occupation sustains Iraq as a bitterly divisive issue in American political discourse. By contrast, given tacit consensus over the Vietnam trauma, President Ronald Reagan was able to rally adequate support for interventions in Central and South America, the Middle East, and Asia throughout the 1980s.

In the end, the United States emerged from Vietnam with a greater ability to address continuing challenges to national security than it has today in the wake of the Iraq experience. McCain and others are right that the United States must attack the Islamic State hard. But getting Americans to view the threats from Iraq with fresh eyes requires politicians to acknowledge the disastrous wrong committed when the United States invaded the country 11 years ago. In other words, what Washington needs today is statesmen-like candor, not opportunistic vindication.

Edward P. Joseph is adjunct professor and senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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