Donald Trump didn’t emerge solely from the passions of his enthusiasts. He emerged also from the wreckage of a center-right that has made many mistakes and been too slow to learn. If we are going to move forward, NeverTrumpers like me should be clear about where we have gone wrong and what we have learned. Perhaps no error looms larger in contemporary American politics than Iraq.
I generally agreed with the Bush administration’s case on Iraq. The Saddam Hussein regime had shown itself both reckless (invading two of its neighbors in costly wars) and ruthless (using chemical weapons against both foreigners and domestic rebels). Hussein had a history of working with terrorist organizations. The Bush administration’s argument that the combination of a brutal regime, terrorist groups, and weapons of mass destruction was an unacceptable risk seemed sound.
I should have known better. I don’t mean the stuff about no active WMD programs. Republican politicians shrug and argue that everyone makes mistakes. Democratic politicians (such as Hillary Clinton) who supported the Iraq War pretend that they were hoodwinked, though they saw the same information as everyone else. (It would be too embarrassing to admit that they supported the war because it was popular and they did not want their presidential ambitions to be blighted in the manner of congressional Democrats who opposed the 1991 Gulf War.)
No, I don’t need to have known more than the CIA about Iraq’s WMD programs. I just should have listened more carefully to what the Bush administration was unwittingly admitting. Maybe the most obvious warning sign was the attack on General Eric Shinseki, who had suggested that an Iraq invasion would require a force of several hundred thousand American troops over a period of several years.
The Bush administration was unwilling to admit that the war might be a costly and drawn-out affair. That should have been a warning: It meant that the administration was unprepared for, or was unwilling to fight, or feared that the public would not support, such a war. If the administration harbored any such doubts, it should not have undertaken the invasion and I should not have supported it.
Then there was the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s decision to limit the ground forces deployed in Iraq, as the US military was taking on a second (larger) military operation on top of the one under way in Afghanistan. They had their excuses about technological transformation and not exacerbating tensions with the Iraqis. And sometimes countries are in the tragic situation of having to go to war without the overwhelming force needed to occupy the country they invade. But that wasn’t the case here. The US had the resources to use more ground troops in the beginning, and to grow the ground forces to maintain a larger occupation. That approach would have been expensive and unpopular—which should have been no obstacle. The Bush administration telegraphed that they were going in light and on the cheap, hoping for a best-case scenario. That should have been reason enough for me to oppose the invasion.
I also should have placed more emphasis on where I disagreed with Bush ideologically. In his Second Inaugural, Bush said, “America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” I’ve never believed that. Sometimes our vital interests involve alliances with monsters like Joseph Stalin. But I thought of Bush’s idealism as being like Reagan’s affinity for the Thomas Paine quote about how we can start the world again. It never seemed to do Reagan any harm, and some politicians just love their hyperbole.
But Bush’s idealism seems to have distorted his sense of both America’s interests and the deepest beliefs of many of the people and organizations in the Iraq area. Saddam Hussein might well have maintained contact with, and provided safe passage to, al-Qaeda leaders, but it took the American invasion and the botched occupation to give al-Qaeda control of large swaths of Iraqi territory. This experience should influence how Americans think of the potential downstream consequences of military interventions and how, if military interventions are to be undertaken, those consequences might be avoided or mitigated. The aftermath of the Libya intervention indicates that the Obama administration has failed to learn those lessons.
Finally, I hoped that dauntlessness would prevail. To his credit, Bush refused to leave Iraq to al-Qaeda, even as leaders across the political spectrum told him to cut and run. Bush took far too long to change his strategy, but when he did, the Surge and the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy managed to expel al-Qaeda-in-Iraq from its strongholds, marginalize the terror group, bring down violence, and allow for the beginning of something like consensual government among Iraq’s factions.
But it had taken too long, the cost was too high given the initial promises, and the goals (destroying an al-Qaeda statelet that only existed because of an American invasion) too ex post facto. Bush was discredited, and the disaster of his poorly planned war (along with a perfectly timed financial crisis) allowed Obama to win the 2008 election and throw away the gains of the Surge. The irony is that Obama, in his alleged eagerness to avoid the mistakes of the Bush administration, allowed large parts of Iraq (and Syria) to fall into the hands of ISIS—al-Qaeda-in-Iraq’s even more brutal and virulent successor organization.
During this year’s GOP primary, the conventional Republican politicians admitted, when cornered, that they would not have ordered the Iraq invasion if they had known that there were no active WMD programs and if they had known how costly the war would be. Then they pivoted to how weak Obama was in the Middle East, or Eastern Europe or anywhere else. They never gave the impression that they had learned anything that would prevent them from making the same mistake again. They were also blind to the reality that, while people might have been unhappy about elements of Obama’s foreign policy and would be willing to trade up to something better, most swing voters would, if faced with a constrained choice, prefer the mistakes of Obama to the mistakes of George W. Bush. The key was to show that you had learned from both sets of mistakes.
The only person who tried to show that he had learned was Trump. Trump lied about opposing the Iraq War at the beginning. He lied about having opposed the Libya intervention. But his formulation, that we were wrong to go in and we were wrong to get out as we did, was exactly right. Conservatives should be able to make both of those points and argue them in detail.
Maybe then the American people will conclude that we have learned enough to be trusted with the presidency.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.