This March will mark the seventeenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and despite the fact that the withdrawal that ended the war occurred just over eight years ago, the war still dominates much political discourse and has shaped contemporary politics. Without it, Barack Obama probably never becomes president and without Obama, Donald Trump doesn’t either.
In 2016 Bernie Sanders tried to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton by citing Clinton’s vote in favor of the war and is now doing the same with Joe Biden. Also in 2016, Donald Trump made opposition to the war a defining difference between him and the more traditional Republican candidates.
The 2016 Primary was a rude wake-up call for Republicans who never had the in-tent conversation about the war that Democrats did. During the Bush Administration, support for the troops and the need to defend the wartime president from the crazy Democrats kicked the can down the road. During the Obama years, the can was kicked further down the road as Republicans unified in opposition to whatever could be considered the Obama Doctrine.
Whenever anyone, such as Rand Paul, spoke up they were quickly silenced and not entirely unfairly, described as a loon and on the fringe.
Criticizing Obama’s 2011 withdrawal that left a power vacuum that led to the raise of ISIS also enabled Republicans to skirt the larger theoretical issues on the table, but the rise for Trump forced Republicans to consider the possibility that their allied think tanks and the base do not share the same priorities on foreign affairs.
For many people on the far-left and on libertarian or populist-right, the war was an epic mistake and anybody who supported it, should be deemed unqualified for higher office. For most Republicans and more establishment Democrats, they say they made the best decision that was available to them at the time.
The problem with this sort of retrospective analysis is that it relies on assumptions about what a revisionist history would have looked like. Was Saddam, despite the fact he was a tyrant, a stabilizing force who suppressed sectarian grievances, who kept Iran in a box or was he an irrational madman who had previously started two wars and if given the opportunity to re-arm, start at third? Would he have re-developed the WMDs eventually, even if they weren’t there when we did take him out?
The problem is exacerbated when you realize there is truth to both.
We’ll never know for certain what would have happened had the Iraq War never happened, but these alternative histories are what we obsess over. This is a mistake.
Instead of disqualifying people from higher office for making what was a widely popular decision at the time, a better course of action would be to ask candidates what they learned.
Granted, these questions are more likely to be asked of those of us on the right side of things, but those on the left who supported Obama’s action in Libya or supported his decision to distance himself from Hosni Mubarak on human rights grounds can be asked similar questions.
Beyond the WMDs, the shooting of coalition aircraft enforcing no-fly zones, and other national security concerns, the Iraq War was also an intellectual experiment in a way that almost no war before it was. That premise was that what worked in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism would work in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Unfortunately it did not. The vision that said that democracy would bring not only freedom, but stability, because down in the hearts of every man and women is a yearning for freedom, has been severely undermined by events.
Candidates should be asked tough questions that may seem academic, but are more important than whether or not the Iraq War itself was wise. The Iraq War in retrospect is an analysis of alternate history, but the lessons from it are not.
What are the limits of promoting democracy and human rights? Are our values as universal as we think? Do all people want freedom and democracy? Is the promotion of democracy and human rights an means to an end or an end in and of themselves? Where on the list of foreign policy priorities in 2020 is exportation of American values? What role does the military have in exporting those values? Is a stable dictatorship better than an unstable democracy?
While Bernie Sanders may be criticizing Joe Biden for the Iraq War, these are questions he needs to answer too, because there is more to the academic side of the Iraq War than the limits of regime change via direct military action.