Jeb Bush’s mishandling of Megyn Kelly’s Iraq question last week on FOX News followed up by Marco Rubio’s poor answer over the weekend to an identical question. Hillary Clinton’s vote for the authorization that led to the Iraq War might seem like it is largely irrelevant now, but it is not.
For those who were not active politically in 2002 and 2003, it is important to create some context around events. Following 9/11 war fever gripped the nation and while those who studied the Middle East like myself knew that the leadership Ba’ath Party was unlikely to ever be in cahoots with Al Qaeda, and because I had spent a long time studying Indian politics and understood Bin Laden’s involvement in Kashmir, I believed Iraq (as well as their rival Iran who actually strongly opposed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan) probably had zero tie to 9/11.
But within both parties war fever gripped the politics. Republicans were anxious for regime change and the imposition of pro-American governments throughout the Middle East while many Democrats haunted by the shadow of Vietnam and opposition to the success of the Gulf War (whose authorization barely passed the Senate, and whose opposition may have prevented Georgia Senator Sam Nunn from being President instead of Bill Clinton). Democrats were scared of being branded doves. Quite frankly most Senators and pols didn’t care about the intelligence – one person that did actually read the intelligence was our Senator Bob Graham who voted against authorizing the war.
While WMD’s were a factor in rallying public support, many politicians in both parties made just one of MULTIPLE arguments in favor of the war. The need for regime change, spreading democracy, curtailing terrorism (even though Saddam Hussein had few if any links to Al Qaeda), getting vengeance for 9/11 and appearing tough to deter future threats were all points articulated in support of going to war. The reconstruction would be paid for by Iraqi oil revenues and the allure of democracy would spread to neighboring countries. Many Democratic activists in South Florida whose names I will avoid mentioning here to not embarrass them articulated strongly the need for Democrats to support the war for political reasons. It was extremely difficult even within the Democratic Party to articulate a strong anti-war stand. This was before the days of Twitter or Facebook but as a political operative who worked with the party across the state, my views about not going to war were not widely shared.
I opposed the war from the beginning even attending multiple protests before the invasion. One point I always made was that if the United States really saw Iran as an enemy, placing a democracy in Iraq with a Shia majority was bound to benefit Tehran. Beyond the obvious liberal arguments against the war, some obvious conservative ones were apparent, including that of strengthening Iran by default and running up the national debt. In the Cold War days, the United States was often reluctant to get into murky conflicts which a military victory might lead to greater problems. Many conservatives of the Cold War era might have opposed the war simply because of the uncertainty it would cause. But traditional conservatism was not an ideology George W. Bush aligned Republicans adhered to. The new Republican foreign policy view by 2002 was shaped by neoconservatives who arguments were often idealistic, liberal and almost always advocated a military solution.
Of course the Iraq War which initially seemed like a simple three month exercise with limited ground troops became an eight year boondoggle with over 4,000 American dead and 15,000 wounded. It was once the reality set in about the disaster of the war that the failure to find WMD’s and the flawed intelligence became dodges and excuses for Democrats and many Republicans who backed the war. The reality of the time was that war fever gripped BOTH major parties and the media (MSNBC before it’s days a liberal channel cancelled Phil Donahue’s show and froze out Ashleigh Banfield after both expressed skeptical views of the war) so important questions were not asked at the time in the public manner they needed to be.
Looking at things objectively at this point in time the WMD situation is being used to justify those who supported an invasion that never made any sense from a regional political standpoint and has created a geopolitical catastrophe we are far from climbing out of 12 years later. The reality is Hillary Clinton likely voted for authorizing the war effort for political reasons and while that might not matter today to some Democratic Primary voters in Florida, it needs to be pointed out. Jeb Bush almost certainly would have gone to war WITHOUT the WMD threat just using other neoconservative talking points to sell the public and Marco Rubio whose rhetoric on the Middle East has been crystal clear probably goes to war as well.
The American political class prior to the Iraq War debacle had enough credit with the public to push for war on shaky grounds or largely manufactured premises. The memories of Vietnam had largely faded and the success of US involvement the Gulf War, Kosovo War, and early stages of the Afghan War made it appear that the US military could get its way anywhere around the globe. It also made politicians very nervous about opposition leaving the articulation of points against the war to left-wing peace advocates and safe veteran US Senators like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd. In the political climate of the day, even if we had known Iraq did not have WMD’s it is almost impossible to believe Hillary Clinton would have opposed the war or that Rubio or Bush would not have gone to war had the decision been theirs.