It remains odd from my perspective that the war in Iraq didn’t create the level of activism and anger in its aftermath in this country that Vietnam did. Iraq quite possibly did have more of an impact on the view of the United States and the nation’s moral authority abroad than Vietnam, but it didn’t shape domestic politics at home in the same manner. Perhaps that was due to the lack of a draft and that so many middle class families were unimpacted by the war. Maybe it correlates to the shift in the Democratic Party away from working class advocacy towards elitism that includes the premise of an interventionist foreign policy based around spreading “American values,” (whatever those are).
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 Osama Bin Laden’s involvement in the Kashmir conflict, 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 from the get-go Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz internally tried to pain a narrative that Iraq was responsible for 9/11 internally on a President who was foreign policy novice.
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 remained 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). Some Democrats were scared of being branded doves while others had bought into phony narratives regarding the region and patriotism. 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 14 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 Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would not have gone to war had the decision been theirs.
Some GOPers have argued that the Iraq War was not all about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) – in that they are correct. WMD’s were simply used to SELL the war to a bloodthirsty public after 9/11. The war was always about ideologically wrong-headed views of American power being projected in the Middle East and an idealistic (even liberal) belief in reshaping the world on Democratic and American lines. The pretext for the war is important so we understand how manipulative the Bush Administration and its allies (which included several Democrats and former Democrats) were to sell the US public on the need for a “preemptive” war. Also it is critical for us to recall how the media was in the tank for the administration and war fever swept the broadcast networks in a way that was reminiscent of World War II.
The Republicans consistent willingness to cling to an ideological world view and an false narrative that President Obama lost the war and peace in Iraq seemed to have undermined activism. It also maybe fuels today’s views among neocons who have lined up with the Democrats, the “resistance,” and CNN as leaders of the anti-Trump movement. This is because for all his other flaws, Donald Trump doesn’t share the GOP/neocon world view established in the days after 9/11. Here is the legacy of that wing of the GOP:
- The Bush Administration’s foreign policy was haphazard and borderline isolationist before 9/11. As President George W. Bush does bear much of the blame for 9/11. He took his eye off the ball and we got burnt big time.
- As soon a 9/12/01 senior Bush administration officials were trying to tie Iraq – a secular state with many Christians in high-ranking positions to the terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. The illogic of these arguments were apparent immediately to people like me who have an elementary knowledge of the region.
- George H.W. Bush had built a massive coalition to fight Iraq in the first Gulf War that included many Arab states. By the middle of 2002, the sympathy for the United States after 9/11 had waned among Arab and Western European leaders because of the rush to attack Iraq. George W. Bush LOST the support of the most vital American allies including Turkey, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia and the war turned into what appeared to most around the globe as an Anglo-American exercise of neo-imperialism. That is the absolute last message the west can afford to EVER send to the rest of the world.
- Once Saddam Hussein was toppled, the occupation was completely bungled and the Iraqi Army ill-advisedly disarmed, directly leading to the insurrection and the formation of Al-Qaida in Iraq and eventually ISIS. This was not an accident. It was the incompetence of American planning and the ineptitude of those administering in the name of the US on the ground that was directly responsible for ISIS forming.
- The response of the GOP and media at the time was to blackball anyone who opposed the war. Scared liberals such as Peter Beinart of The New Republic and Senator’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry among others supported the war (I like to point out our Senator Bob Graham of Florida who actually read all of the intelligence reports opposed the war). Media personalities who questioned the war were taken off the air, such as Phil Donahue and Ashleigh Banfield at MSNBC were shown the door.
This is the GOP and George W. Bush legacy in Iraq. But for whatever reason, the left despite victories in 2006 and 2008 never made Iraq, a war of choice that was arguably even less morally justifiable or wise from a geopolitical standpoint than Vietnam. But for whatever reason liberals and the Democrats many of whom had conflicted views about the war to begin with were either not able to or flat out unwilling to make the war a defining tenant of American politics, one which very well might have realigned the country in the favor of the Democrats. Instead, today many on the left make common cause with the architects of the Iraq War out of a shared personal disdain for President Trump – suddenly war mongers like David Frum and William Kristol are seen as “reasonable Republicans” for their anti-Trump views by many watchers of CNN and MSNBC, though both were intellectually dishonest in the run up to war in 2002 and 2003. It’s also not a coincidence that Lindsay Graham is the most outspoken anti-Trump GOP Senator – Graham’s world view conflicts with Trump’s for reasons the left should feel uncomfortable about.
Trump might be a buffoonish embarrassment to this nation, but he doesn’t have the amount of blood on his hands, American blood that the neocons do. The unwillingness of many on the left to make Iraq the defining political fight of a generation including in 2016, and now the embrace of anti-Trump neocons is disappointing. While it may surprise a lot of more recent converts to political discourse, nothing Donald Trump has done in his first six months in office remotely approaches the dangerous deceit of the Bush years. Those who built the Bush war machine and others who enabled it SHOULD NOT be in alliance with the left no matter who personally distasteful President Trump might appear.