Dear GOP, Let’s Talk About Iraq

Iraq. Since the United States invaded that country in 2003, it has become a word of abuse, derision, contempt. The GOP is still haunted by the run-up to, invasion, and mismanagement of the aftermath of a war launched by a two-time Republican President. I see many serious people arguing that the GOP was utterly destroyed by Iraq and has never recovered.

Worse, Iraq Fatigue, even five years after we technically withdrew from that country, has led to some of the ugliest expressions of isolationism I’ve seen in a while. I’ve seen people who object to Americans dying for Estonia, a NATO member. I’ve seen Iraq Fatiguers talk about how Ukraine should basically be abandoned to Russia because “it’s not our business.” The GOP Frontrunner goes on an even worse note, talking about cutting deals with ruthless expansionist dictators like Putin and wondering what stalwart allies Japan and South Korea (!) have ever done for the US.

The GOP’s failure to come up with a clear and flexible vision for American power in the world after the Cold War is a serious issue, one which I tried to address in a previous article. But if the GOP is going to truly recover, it must confront Iraq. And it must do so without visions of abandoning all its friends around the world to the wolves. Below are some tentative, non-expert suggestions on how to and how not to do so.

Do You Want Vengeance for the Past or a Solution to the Present?

In 1973, on the Jewish Yom Kippur, Israel was hit with a surprise conventional attack from two directions. Although it eventually emerged victorious, the mismanagement of the war and the horrific cost led to brutal recriminations. Faced with the bloody aftermath, Israel had two choices which were mutually exclusive — find out how to prevent a repeat through careful and sober lesson-learning, or demand revenge. In the end, it largely chose revenge.

Even when I came here in the 1990s, every Yom Kippur became an ugly media exercise in exorcism, in which those responsible for the war in the government and military were metaphorically dug from the grave to face an angry mob and instant guilty verdict. They were then reburied for next year. I don’t recall it ever changed anything — whether regarding intelligence gathering, army doctrine and preparation, or otherwise.

This is precisely the direction the United States, and the GOP in particular, must not follow. That anger and confusion must be directed to positive ends to solve present problems. Burning W, Cheney, and others in effigy may be briefly emotionally satisfying but it will do nothing to regain America’s balance as global hegemon and protector of liberty.

Iraq is still there, and it is still an issue that requires addressing — in its present and not in its Saddamite form, whether you think the latter was a golden age or not. The presence of the Islamic proto-Bolshevik state ISIS, the matter of containing self-declared enemy Iran, and in general America’s problems with promoting liberty even in complicated multi-ethnic states will not suddenly disappear if we shut our eyes.

Discussions of GOP foreign policy must discuss Iraq openly. Admit failure where it’s deserved, but focus on the present. We need #realtalk, not fantasy thinking in the other, isolationist direction.

Iraq was a failure, it was not the WORST FAILURE EVAR!

Even Dr. John Schindler, no fan of neocons, admits that total failure in Iraq was not entirely pre-ordained. It hinged on serious mistakes at various junctures by both the Bush and Obama administrations, mistakes which were utterly avoidable. There is little in history that is entirely “inevitable”, just more or less likely. We need to remember this.

More importantly, Iraq is very far from the worst US blunder or foreign policy failure in its post-1917 Era of Declared Global Power. The failure of intervention in the Russian Civil War, the loss of China to the Communists, the loss of Vietnam and Indochina in general— all of these led to far greater loss of life and far greater danger to the rest of the world by orders of magnitude. We do ourselves no favors by magnifying the admitted failures in Iraq into something they are not. Such things lead to emotional and hysterical thinking we don’t need.

Even the present situation is not as utterly apocalyptic and dire as some would argue. ISIS has not taken over Iraq or Syria like the Bolsheviks did in Russia, and it is still held in check in various places. Iran is only starting to recover with its newly found cash and will take a while to rebuild itself. The civil wars occurring everywhere are horrible and bloody, but none have resulted in decisive victory for enemies of the United States. Yet.

Is the situation getting worse?

Yes, and especially with the surge in Russian revanchism in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, the west is in for a very serious and long fight. But it is very serious, not disastrous. So long as millions aren’t dying in the trenches or we’ve gone to DEFCON ONE, there is what to do. So, please, let’s learn a thing or two from the old Cold Warriors, who lived in the shadow of apocalypse their whole professional lives, and discuss this carefully and accurately.

Talking policy, talking vision

Another important thing the GOP must keep in mind is how to talk to different audiences. Most voters know little and care less about the kind of specific policy issues professionals talk about — intelligence operations, army doctrine, diplomatic niceties, and so on. While policy is a crucial part of reorienting American power, that is a discussion that will necessarily take place among a fairly small and knowledgeable group of people in the fields of intelligence, diplomacy, and warfare.

That discussion must not take place at the expense of talking to Joe Q. Public. Far too many of the GOP or conservative publications spend time discussing policy points and do not work enough to speak about what the principles of American power should be. What should Americans be ready to die for? Or even fight for? What should America stand for? When? Questions too general for the wonk crowd, many, many conservatives crave at least possible answers to them. We owe them coherent responses.

Will it be easy? No. Not by a long shot. But it’s not impossible. Twenty years after the debacle of WWI and isolationism from the Eastern Hemisphere, the US took a leading role in reshaping the world in WWII and thereafter. But five years after the final fall of Vietnam, Ronald Reagan reinvigorated the United States as the bastion of the free world and helped win the Cold War. Iraq is comfortably within this ambit of rebound.

Have a discussion, have a debate — but let’s avoid fratricide, please

To be sure, like Trump fans, some people will be utterly irreconcilable to reason or alternatives. The anger is too deep. But I think there are many conservatives and just normal Americans who are open to discussing and debating Iraq, both as a country and as a template for American use and misuse of power and liberty promotion. It’s time to talk to them without seppuku or effigy burning.

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