There’s no question that the Iraq War debacle was one entry on the bill of particulars against the Republican Party in 2008. But take a look at what’s happened since then. Obama has all but adopted Bush’s foreign policy as his own: he launched a war against Libya; escalated the war in Afghanistan; enormously expanded the use of drone attacks; and embraced virtually all of the worst aspects of Bush’s national security policy.
Do you notice what’s missing from this list? Drum somehow manages to sum up Obama’s foreign policy in the first term without mentioning withdrawal from Iraq. Yes, there is considerable continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations on foreign policy and national security, but almost everything Drum lists here were things that Obama more or less explicitly campaigned on. It’s true that many Obama supporters ignored this part of his campaign, or perhaps some thought that he wasn’t going to do these things once in office, but for good or ill Obama delivered on a lot of the foreign policy agenda he presented to the voters in 2008. Obama was perceived correctly as the less hawkish of the two major party candidates, and McCain was offering the electorate dead-ender Iraq war cheerleading at a time when two-thirds of the country disapproved of it. Stark differences between the nominees were sometimes hard to identify, but on Iraq the differences were as great as any in recent presidential campaigns. Obama campaigned as a hawk on Al Qaeda and Afghanistan, but obviously represented a mostly antiwar position on Iraq as a presidential nominee.
Were it not for the Iraq war and Obama’s record of being against it at the beginning, it is doubtful that he would have sought or that he could have won the nomination. A Democrat might have won in 2008 without the Iraq war’s effects, but the Iraq war is one of the most important reasons why Obama won in part because of his foreign policy views. To be clear, those views did not represent a total repudiation of anything and everything Bush had done, but they did represent as close to a full repudiation of Bush’s largest, costliest foreign policy decision as we were ever likely to see in that presidential election. It’s true that most people don’t vote on foreign policy issues, but they do vote on whether they trust the judgment of presidential candidates, and the decision of when and how to use force is an important part of how voters assess candidates’ judgment. The current Democratic advantage on foreign policy is hard to imagine without Obama’s original opposition to the Iraq war and the GOP’s implosion on foreign policy brought about by the war.
I still disagree with the decision to intervene in Libya, but Obama’s intervention there doesn’t do anything to disprove the argument about the Iraq war’s effects on domestic politics. The Libyan war was the least popular war at its start of any military action in the last thirty years, but it had no real political effect at home because it was relatively short and involved no American casualties. That helps to explain why Iraq had such a significant impact on domestic politics. The Iraq war was not only prolonged, which is never popular, but it also resulted in thousands of Americans dead and tens of thousands wounded. Worst of all, all of these losses seemed to be for nothing as the situation in Iraq kept deteriorating.
The public saw how administration pretended that the war was going in the right direction at the same time that they could see that it had become a disaster, which eroded public trust in administration’s overall competence and caused most Americans to lose confidence in Bush as president. As I said yesterday, this loss of confidence was compounded by other failures here and overseas, but Bush had sought re-election primarily by campaigning on his supposed foreign policy and national security competence and successes and he was undone politically when those proved to be illusory. Once that slide started, it couldn’t be reversed. Approval for Bush and Iraq fell together, and Republican political support disappeared as approval for both tanked. The change in public opinion on Iraq tracks closely with declining support for the GOP. Polling shows that the especially violent summer of 2006 was the turning point, and from then on most of the public was against the war and Bush, and the GOP’s continued embrace of the war compounded the problem. Iraq was already one of the GOP’s major liabilities with the electorate starting in 2006, and the contrast between the nominees in 2008 made that liability even worse.