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Republicans Think Iraq Was a Mistake? Wha?

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

Back in May of 2015, Republicans decided the Iraq War was a mistake.

Wha?

It started when Jeb Bush told Megyn Kelly that he would have invaded Iraq even, “knowing what we know now”. It was a bad answer, or as Seth Meyers framed it on his late night show, “I have to say, Jeb, you’re making a real Iraq out of this. And just so you know, Iraq is slang for mess, because that’s what everyone agrees it was.”

Shockingly, other Republicans agreed with Seth Meyers. Zack Beauchamp tallied up the responses for Vox: Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich all said that, if Iraq didn’t have WMDs, they would NOT have invaded Iraq. Slate added Rick Santorum and Carly Fiorina to the list of Republicans who said, knowing what we know now about WMDs, they wouldn’t have invaded. Eventually, even Jeb Bush reversed himself.

Donald Trump perhaps said it best in the ninth debate:

“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right?...The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don't even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.”

On the one hand, “hurray” for the country finally deciding that the Iraq war was a mess. But it also shows that the media still struggles to properly discuss war and American foreign policy. Some thoughts...

1. The Iraq War is no longer debatable. That’s insanely awesome.

The Iraq War--at least America’s justification for that war--is nearing “no-longer-debatable” territory. It was a failure. No serious thinker, pundit or politician questions the non-existence of WMDs. Despite the polling numbers below, Republican presidential candidates know they can’t come out in favor of the war in Iraq or challenge the non-existence of WMDs without the majority of Americans not taking them seriously.

In the context of the truly objectionable positions many Republicans have taken on foreign policy, at least we’ve made progress, as a country, on this issue. And frankly, I’m stunned. Delighted, but stunned.

2. Rank and file Republicans--in general--still don’t believe this.

In late 2014, we wrote up one of my personal favorite posts, “Weapons of Mass Dis-information: 5 Different Books By or About Navy SEALs That Repeat the Same Misinformation”. As we wrote then, according to a YouGov poll, only 42% of Americans think Iraq didn’t have WMDs. 25% have no idea. More importantly, 62% of Republicans believe Saddam Hussein did.

Perhaps that 2012 poll is too old for you. Here’s one from early 2015: half of Republicans think Iraq had WMDs. For Republican presidential candidates to come out against the existence of WMDs, that’s both a good thing and totally mind-blowing. I’d have thought, like Obama’s “birth certificate”, they would have addressed this issue with code words. But they didn’t. That’s progress.

3. This is still the wrong question to ask.

I got so caught up with Republicans admitting that Iraq didn’t have WMDs that I completely missed the silliness of this question and the ensuing media spat. On its face, the question is misleading, or as Michael C put it, it’s like asking someone “Why do you beat your wife?”

We knew then that Iraq didn’t have WMDs, as James Fallows, Greg Sergeant, Jonathan Chait, Paul Krugman, and Peter Beinart pointed out. By framing the question as, “knowing what we know now” pretends that we didn’t “know what we knew” then. It absolves the Bush administration for cooking the intelligence books and misleading the American public. Reporters should ask, “How would you ensure you get accurate intelligence?”

4. What happened to the “Saddam was a bad guy” argument?

Marco Rubio, defending his position, pointed out that even George W. Bush wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Except that’s not really true, at least not according to Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points (H/T to the Washington Post fact checker). As the justifications for war in Iraq fell away--there were no links to al Qaeda; we didn’t find any WMDs; the country didn’t become a democracy--George W. Bush, other administration officials, and their defenders still had one last justification: Saddam Hussein was a bad guy.

Here’s what Bush wrote in his memoir:

“But inaction would have had consequences, too. Imagine what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein still ruling Iraq. He would still be threatening his neighbors, sponsoring terror and piling bodies into mass graves.”

The better question for today is, would a Saddam Hussein regime be better than ISIS?

I should be generous: Bush’s defenders didn’t really have any arguments left after all the other ones fell away. The irony of the Saddam was a bad guy argument is what has taken Saddam’s place: a region mired in civil war and not one but two destabilized regimes, fostering Islamic extremists and terrorism. Oh, and tons of mass graves.

5. What about the veterans?

Jeb Bush had the strangest dodge of all, trying to avoid answering anything about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. He brought up the real victims of the debate: soldiers and veterans (with their invincibly strong approval ratings).

“I admired the men and women -- mostly men -- that made the ultimate sacrifice. So, going back in time and talking about hypotheticals -- what would have happened what could have happened, I think, does a disservice for them."

So because soldiers died in a war, we can’t discuss the decisions that led to them dying in that war? We can’t analyze a bad decision to prevent future bad decisions?

Nothing in this whole debate is more illogical than that.