Let’s set aside our views about the morality of the Iraq war and our speculations about its likely impact on political development of the Middle East so we can concentrate on a crucial part of its strategic rationale. Why did it seem like a good idea at the time, not only neo-conservative strategists inside the Bush administration, but to fellow-travelers in both parties?“Yesterday, the libertarian Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion on conservatism and the war in Afghanistan with Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN). When the conversation shifted to the war in Iraq, Rohrabacher said that ‘once President Bush decided to go into Iraq, I thought it was a mistake because we hadn’t finished the job in Afghanistan,’ but that once Bush ‘decided to go in,’ he ‘felt compelled’ to ‘back him up.’ He then added that ‘the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake.’
Moderator Grover Norquist then asked Rohrabacher to provide a “guesstimate percentage of Republicans in Congress who would share that view — not that they opposed the President at the time, but today looking back.” Rohrabacher replied that ‘everybody I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now’:
ROHRABACHER: Well, now that we know that it cost a trillion dollars and all of these years and all of these lives and all of this blood, uh, I don’t know many…
NORQUIST: Looking for a number. Two-thirds? One-third?
ROHRABACHER: I, I can’t. All I can say is the people, everybody I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now.
NORQUIST: That’s 100 percent.
Norquist then turned to McClintock, asking ‘what percentage’:
NORQUIST: Of Republicans in Congress, who would agree with the general analysis here that it was a mistake and/or we should go in.
MCCLINTOCK: I think everyone would agree Iraq was a mistake.
NORQUIST: Two hundred percents. Ok, we’re going to average these.”
A big part of the answer was the widespread perception that, in the wake of 9/11, the international community needed to enforce its resolutions against state sponsors of terrorism, and the United States was the only agent with the military capacity and the resolve to do the job. We’d all seen how a little high-altitude bombing in the Balkans had persuaded genocidal Serbs that American military power was too formidable to be worth resisting. But the threat to use military force wouldn’t be credible if it were filtered through the decision-making apparatus of international organizations or even military alliances like NATO. Watching UN peace-keeping “forces” standing idly by during the massacre at Srebrenica persuaded a lot of people that the U.S. could only act as the enforcer of the international community if it was prepared to act, and widely known to be prepared to act, unilaterally.
That was a big reason why a lot sensible people thought Iraq was the best place to demonstrate to rogue states that they were sponsoring terrorist networks at their own peril. Saddam had defied enough UN resolutions to make him the most legitimate available target. And Iraq looked like the country in which it would be easiest to install a viable and legitimate successor regime. Not many people, even among the war’s opponents, had reckoned with the possibility that our enemies in Iraq might be made of sterner stuff than the Serbs—the Iraqi Sunnis because they actually thought they were entitled to rule, and international jihadists because of their otherworldly indifference to damage we could inflict by military means. When the administration commenced “Operation Shock and Awe,” it hadn’t occurred to many people that we Americans might be more awed by our military might than our enemies.
The ideological argument over the Iraq war isn’t going to end anytime soon. But there’s no arguing about one thing: the threat of American military power can’t play the role that neo-conservatives envisioned for it because practically no one across the ideological spectrum is willing to bear the costs in blood and treasure of making it credible. The world has known that for a long time. It looks like even Republicans know it.