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Erasing the Iraq War from Republican Party History

Politico has produced an article on the Republicans’ foreign policy disadvantage that never once mentions the Iraq war. This is as close as the article gets:

Still, Republicans aren’t accustomed to fighting an uphill battle when it comes to the country’s defense. For the entire span of the Bush administration, the party was united by its pride in the president’s response to Sept. 11 and its support for the White House’s “freedom agenda” — promoting democracy across the Muslim world, in some cases with the help of the armed force.

It isn’t possible to account for the Republicans’ loss of their advantage on foreign policy and national security without specifically addressing how the Iraq war and the GOP’s dead-ender embrace of the conflict destroyed it. Republicans were on the losing side of the foreign policy debate four years ago, but they didn’t know it. Because McCain was the nominee, and because McCain’s ratings on these issues were often higher than Obama’s, the assumption was that the traditional Republican edge remained. The truth was that the Iraq war had eliminated that edge, and in the four years since then the party has been unable to win it back because they still don’t fully appreciate why they lost it.

The problem goes beyond failing to grapple with the legacy of the Iraq war. Even if some leading Republicans might acknowledge that the Bush administration’s management of the war contributed to the party’s losses in 2006 and 2008, the only thing they take from this is that better management was needed. According to this view, it was the execution, not the policy, that was flawed. Even if a few movement conservative intellectuals now grudgingly recognize the gravity of the error of invading Iraq, that doesn’t always translate into a rethinking of Republican foreign policy assumptions. It usually doesn’t cause movement conservatives to question whether other consensus policy views make any more sense than the strong, deeply flawed bipartisan consensus in 2002-03 that Iraq was an intolerable threat.

While the Iraq war’s role in wrecking the GOP’s reputation on foreign policy is being ignored in this report, it is no different from the way party leaders cope with the radioactive legacy of an unnecessary war. Much as they have done with George W. Bush, they usually avoid talking about it, and hope that no one will notice. Unfortunately for the Republican ticket, the public’s memories are not quite so short. According to the 2012 survey, public opposition to the Iraq war is as high as it has ever been with 67% saying the war was not worth fighting. Considering how unpopular the war has become, it is surprising that there is as much confidence in Republican leadership on foreign policy as there is.

The article also overstates Republican enthusiasm for the “freedom agenda.” In fact, support for the “freedom agenda” within the Republican Party was almost entirely accidental. Most Republicans supported the “freedom agenda” because they supported Bush, and they supported Bush because they had rallied behind him after the attacks and never stopped. There is almost no popular constituency for what the “freedom agenda” represents or the ideological assumptions behind it, and there never has been. As the Chicago Council’s 2012 survey found, democracy promotion is a priority for just 11% of Republicans, and there isn’t much more support for it outside the party. In 2005, there was more overall support for democracy promotion as a top foreign policy priority, but even then it was never very great.

The 2005 survey confirms that Republicans were not united behind the content of this agenda. The survey found that a majority of Americans rejected using military force for promoting democracy, didn’t think democracy promotion justified the war in Iraq, and didn’t accept the assumptions of “democracy peace” theory. Even among Republicans, only 52% supported using military force to overthrow a dictator for the purposes of democracy promotion. Just 35% of Republicans believed democracy promotion was sufficient justification for the war, and only 55% of them agreed that democracies are less likely to go to war with other democracies. All of this was before the Iraq war had reached its nadir and before the public had turned decisively against it. So there was never unity among Republicans on any of this. What you did see was the deference of most Republicans to their party leadership and especially to the executive. The Republican view in 2005 was much more favorably disposed towards democracy promotion than the national average, and since then Republicans have become much more skeptical about it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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