POLITICS

Tim Carney: The mistake of Iraq and the education of the Right

By |
Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Politics Digest

President George W. Bush, with authority from a bipartisan majority in Congress, made the mistake of invading Iraq 10 years ago this week. Republicans and conservatives may have learned some lessons from this folly.

Many still defend the war, and not without some merit. Obviously, Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator whom nobody will miss. But even if you think the war was justified, you cannot deny the costs were huge.

Almost 4,500 U.S. troops died in the Iraq War, and tens of thousands were wounded. The price of sending soldiers into combat has been broken families, domestic violence and the suicides of many veterans. The war cost $1 trillion, and this figure will grow as veterans seek treatment and interest on the national debt accrues. The war probably gave Democrats control of Congress in 2006 and helped Barack Obama win the White House in 2008.

The bloody war and lengthy occupation served as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda while diverting resources from the war against the terrorists who hit America on 9/11 and want to keep killing Americans. Finally, deposing Hussein has arguably strengthened the Iranian regime that now threatens the U.S. and its ally Israel.

To echo fellow Washington Examiner Columnist Gene Healy: Conservatives don't deserve all the blame for our entry into Iraq. Eighty-one House Democrats voted to authorize the war in late 2002, including floor leaders Dick Gephardt and Steny Hoyer. Democrats controlled the upper chamber at the time, and a majority of Democratic senators voted for war, including John Kerry, Joe Biden, Tom Daschle, Harry Reid, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. One of the GOP aye votes is now Obama's secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel.

And the liberal press joined in beating the war drums. Today's youngish liberal bloggers mostly cut their blogging teeth by supporting the war -- the Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Slate's Matt Yglesias, to name two. The first time I met Jonathan Chait, now at New York Magazine and consistently one of the most biting critics of Republicans, was onstage at an Iraq War debate in late 2002 -- he was arguing for the war, and I was against it. These liberal writers have admitted and explained their mistakes.

What's interesting is how much the Right's bellicosity has been dialed down since the war. Many conservative writers who supported the war in 2002, 2003 and even later came to realize by 2008 that it was a mistake.

Not only have the costs -- human, monetary and political -- become glaring, but the unconservatism of the war has become hard to ignore.

War is the antithesis of fiscal conservatism. The war drove up federal spending, piling a trillion dollars onto the debt, killing Republican credibility on spending restraint and later helping justify President Obama's trillion dollars in tax hikes.

War also strips away limits on federal power. Constitutional restraints get tested in times of war. When that war lasts a decade and has no clear finish line, this untethers the state all the more. The precedents Bush set for indefinite detention and warrantless wiretaps will empower every future president.

Randolph Bourne, a leftist intellectual who opposed World War I, wrote that war is the health of the state. As such, it is a cancer on the rivals of the state -- civil society and individual liberty.

And consider the Bush administration's ambitious talk of remaking Iraq as a stepping stone to remaking the region. This national-greatness conservatism has a clear echo in Obama's national-greatness liberalism, which aims at "remaking America" and promises "we do big things."

Rallying behind Bush's ambitious "freedom agenda" meant abandoning a core insight of conservatism: that big ideas and big plans are dangerous because human knowledge and ability to predict consequences are limited much more than our planners tend to imagine.

These days, it looks like the Right is coming home. Today's Republicans and conservatives are less eager to go into the next war. The 2012 GOP primary had its saber-rattling moments, but most candidates said they didn't want war with Syria or Iran. Obama's intervention in Libya met with some GOP skepticism. Sen. Rand Paul was embraced more than he was shunned for his filibuster questioning the use of drones against American citizens.

The growing Republican skepticism about war may just be a reaction against Obama. But maybe it's a real appreciation that Americans ought to curb government power, be aware of unintended consequences, and not be so careless with human life -- in a word, conservatism.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

View article comments Leave a comment