That Old George W. Bush Feeling
Once again, the U.S. finds itself on the precipice of war in the Middle East.
For all his flaws, Donald Trump had alleviated the foreign policy hangover of the George W. Bush years. It was possible for perfectly mainstream conservatives to finally acknowledge the folly of the Iraq war and speak out forcefully against repeating it, whether in Libya, Syria, Yemen or Iran. This has been especially true of younger voices on the Right, who grew up watching failed nation-building exercises abroad that did not make their own country safer. After 9/11, we diverted our attention from Osama bin Laden to unrelated villains like Saddam Hussein and the resulting interventions often left the al Qaeda knock-offs with more room to operate after our regime change wars than before.
Trump’s strike killing Iranian Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani inside Iraq brings back memories of Mission Accomplished. Some of the conservatives cheering most loudly aren’t normally Trump fans. “General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb). “The president made the brave and right call, and Americans should be proud of our servicemembers who got the job done.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally who is a Bush throwback on foreign policy, told reporters. “I think we need to be ready for a big counterpunch,” girding for wider conflict with Iran….
The partisan debate has returned: Democrats cry “wag the dog” and “Trump’s Benghazi” in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that motivated the Soleimani strike; even Republicans who once talked about abandoning the neoconservatism that led to Iraq cheer Trump and downplay the possibility of an Iraq-like war with Iran.
We are back to Republicans waving the flag while kooky liberal celebrities do their best Jane Fonda impressions, moving the debate away from territory where Middle America and military veterans were among the most skeptical of our post-9/11 forever wars. Trump may not want war, but some of those advising him have been down this road promising cakewalks and the greeting of liberators before.
Even now, such a war isn’t inevitable. Trump supporters, including some who say they oppose war with Iran, are hopeful this will do more to cripple future Iranian attacks on Americans in the region even as Tehran will be more motivated to conduct them than ever before. But a consequence of the Iraq war was to remove a counterweight to Iran and empower a Shiite government that will always have more in common with Tehran than Washington prefers. We have been waging a low-level proxy war with Iran in Iraq ever since, with an interlude of uneasy cooperation against ISIS, and these facts cannot easily be wished or bombed away. Our continued, if reduced, occupation of Iraq is the main thing exposing Americans to risk of harm at Iranian hands. It remains to be seen how much that calculus now changes.
Most reminiscent of the past is the situation where TAC, with a few allies, is a lonely voice on the Right for restraint, prudence and skepticism under a Republican administration. Let us hope the country, including the president, wakes up before it is too late.