Michael Brendan Dougherty appeals to Republicans to admit their errors on Iraq:

Republican lawmakers should stand up now because it is also a necessary course correction for their entire party. Democrats survived the Cold War and the charge of “losing China” by over-compensating in their militarism and their anti-communism. Even then, the foreign policy electoral advantage of Republicans was massive for four decades. But the polarity of American foreign policy politics may have reversed.

As our last panel at Tuesday’s conference discussed, things really have changed at the popular level, but at the elite level they haven’t. That is the difficulty in getting elected Republicans to acknowledge publicly that they were wrong about Iraq: doing this may please many voters, but it also puts these politicians at odds with the party’s leaders and foreign policy elites and risks provoking primary challenges. Dougherty anticipates this objection:

The fewer GOP congressmen that make the truth of their views known now, the easier it is for hawks to pick them off in primaries. The more they are picked off, the greater the price for standing apart from the party. A caucus of 60 House Republicans is a school of thought, a cause of six is an exoticism. Peace-making Republicans will either stand together or hang separately.

A skeptic might also say that foreign policy is generally such a low priority for most voters that there is not enough of an advantage to be had by taking this risk. On the other hand, we saw last year how energized the public can become when it is presented with unnecessary military action. Most voters may not rate foreign policy as a major concern, but when it comes to questions of armed intervention the public can become extremely interested in taking one side of the debate. Most polling over the last year suggests that more hawkish candidates are the ones with a clear political liability now, and there’s some reason to think that this is not just a passing phase. As Dougherty points out, party leaders and foreign policy elites are wildly out of touch with the public’s concerns on these issues, so there is much less incentive for most Republican politicians to fall in line than there used to be.

Dougherty is right to urge Republicans to make this admission, and I agree that it is necessary if the GOP is to have any chance of regaining the public’s trust on foreign policy. However, admitting that the war was a “mistake” without making significant changes to the way that one thinks about the relevant issues won’t be enough. The real test for “peace-making” Republicans in office won’t be whether they can be made to acknowledge something about a disastrous war that at least two-thirds of the country already knows, but whether they can avoid making similarly terrible foreign policy judgments when the next debate over the use of force takes place. That will require seriously altering the way that most Republicans have thought about these issues since the end of the Cold War, and that won’t take place until at least some of them take the lead in acknowledging their past errors.

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