Ten Miles Square


December 16, 2011 10:02 AM Republican Candidates Can’t Run From Iraq War

By Jonathan Alter

All U.S. ground troops will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, and soon this sorry conflict will fade quietly into the past, the second-dumbest war in American history. Yet the Iraq War has been missing in action during the Republican presidential campaign.

Like “body counts,” “Khe Sanh” and “My Lai” from Vietnam, “IEDs,” “Fallujah” and “Abu Ghraib” are already meaningless to many younger Americans. Today’s young voters were preteens when the war began in 2003.

The forgetting will be faster than with Vietnam because Iraq never penetrated our consciousness in the same way — unless you were among the 30,000 who came back physically wounded or the more than 100,000 with psychological problems. If you add these 130,000 to the 4,500 dead and include the toll on their families, more than half a million Americans were directly affected by this war.

Our soldiers served with great courage, and they deserve respect (and jobs) when they return. But only now are we learning some of the chilling consequences of what took place. The New York Times revealed this week an internal report that details massacres of civilians in Haditha by U.S. forces. One U.S. officer, Major General Steve Johnson, described the killings as “a cost of doing business.”

Speaking of cost, the full price of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is at least $1 trillion, which President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress put on the credit card.

Raising an Army

Recall the ancient expression “to raise an army.” Part of its meaning is raising taxes to arm and clothe that army. Iraq and Afghanistan were the first wars in our history where we didn’t raise taxes to pay for them, and our Army was endangered by the failure to include proper body armor and other equipment for our soldiers. Historians will view with shock and awe the juxtaposition of $1 trillion wars and huge tax cuts.

Is Iraq better off? Yes, we removed Saddam Hussein, but the Arab Spring might have done that by now without us. The Iraqis viewed us as occupiers not liberators, and recently refused even a residual force of 10,000 U.S. troops to help protect them. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, heads the most pro- Iranian government in the Arab world, other than Syria. For all of the diplomatic niceties when he visited with President Barack Obama this week, Maliki has trampled on the rule of law and assumed quasi-dictatorial powers. Iraq is a democracy in name only.

If we knew in 2003 what we know now — about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the cost in blood and treasure, the length of hostilities, the blow to American prestige — would we do it all again? Of course not. Even those like me who supported the war at the outset must admit the whole thing was a fiasco.

You won’t hear anyone saying anything like this in the presidential debates. In fact, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have both been sounding lately as if they’re itching for another big war — with Iran — though it’s hard to imagine either of them raising taxes to pay for that one, either.

Gingrich, now calling for “regime change” in Tehran, has been down this road before. In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “If we don’t use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster.” He was right about the disaster part, and not much else.

Over the years, Gingrich was wrong when he argued that the U.S. Army wasn’t overextended, wrong when he backed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the hilt, wrong when he claimed that democratizing Iraq would weaken Iran. Nowadays, Gingrich is merely contradictory, alternating between saying “the president is right” in following through on Bush’s timetable for withdrawal and arguing that “Iran is stronger” without the slightest admission that he once said the opposite.

Failure or Not

Romney isn’t any more consistent. He went from claiming withdrawal was “an astonishing failure” for Obama to a grudging acknowledgment that withdrawal is “appropriate.”

One might imagine that having been colossally wrong about Iraq, the Republican front-runners would want to hire advisers who got it right. Nope. Gingrich says that John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would be his secretary of state. In 1998, Bolton, who makes Donald Rumsfeld look like Michael Moore, was among the 18 signers of a Project for the New American Century letter that kicked off the movement for regime change in Iraq. Romney’s top foreign-policy adviser on the Middle East is Walid Phares, a stridently anti-Islamic lobbyist for Israel who pushed hard for the Iraq War by lumping in Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat. Both foreign- policy “experts” are now leading the charge to invade Iran.

Unfortunately, Iraq has been mentioned only two or three times in passing in all of the Republican debates. If the folly of the war were better known, maybe Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman wouldn’t be the only Republican candidates worried about unwise foreign adventures. I have interviewed many Iraq veterans and parents of dead service members over the years. I’ll never forget how one weeping father, sitting at the kitchen table in his Cleveland home, explained to me that he and his late son shared a birthday. “I’ll never have a happy birthday again,” he said.

When will his voice be heard in Republican politics?

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Jonathan Alter a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and two on Barack Obama.


  • Dredd on December 17, 2011 4:50 PM:

    Can't understand their timidity. The oil barons are happy, and proclaim that shortly, in a few years, Iraq will be the number one oil producer / exporter, surpassing Saudi Arabia.

    Not that the war had anything to do with oil of course.

  • Milt on December 18, 2011 8:58 AM:

    I agree with the crux of your article but I must point out that in 2003 we did know there were no WMDs and it was pointed out many times but people ignored the facts because it is easier to allow a dictatorship than fight against it. The same will occur if the extreme conservatives gain power. From Nixon to Reagan to Bush I to Bush II there has been a consistent and identifiable trend toward rewriting history, ignoring laws and the constitution, failing to take responsibility, manipulating the economy among many travesties. You can not expect a change in the philosophy just because the figurehead changes.

  • Marc on December 18, 2011 9:23 AM:

    Since most of the repub candidates go by the playbook, it probably hasn't been updated to show how the war was Obama's mistake.

  • angryspittle on December 18, 2011 10:19 AM:

    Any sentient being knew that the Iraq war was based on lies in 2003. Millions around the world protested the coming war because they knew. Saddam was nothing more than the mayor of Baghdad. The whole fiasco was a lie and Alter should have known too.

  • Okie on December 18, 2011 10:36 AM:

    A question that the lapdog "liberal" media will never ask Romney or Gingrich:

    "If it became necessary to go to war against the regime in Iran, would you favor raising taxes to pay for it?"

  • Doubter on December 18, 2011 9:12 PM:

    "Our soldiers served with great courage, and they deserve respect (and jobs) when they return."

    Some served courageously, but all did so under illegal orders of invasion and occupation. "I was only following orders" wasn't a valid excuse in the times of Nuremberg, and it isn't now.