After an afternoon making calls from the Dubliner and an all-nighter fueled by a week’s worth of Irish whiskey, I put the final edits on the post-election edition of the Evans-Novak Political Report. The top headline: “Republican Disaster.”
Aside from some congressmembers’ scandals, there was just one issue that turned this election: Iraq. I almost felt a smug satisfaction as I pulled out an old, dusty document I’ve kept in my desk, a transcript of the presidential debate of October 3, 2000.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: “I would take the use of force very seriously. I would be guarded in my approach. I don’t think we can be all things to all people in the world. I think we’ve got to be very careful when we commit our troops.
“The vice president [Al Gore] and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation-building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place.”
After that debate, public attention was consumed by “fuzzy math” and Al Gore’s incessant sighing. But what really caught my attention was Bush’s position on military force. He was criticizing not just the Clinton Administration’s foreign misadventures in Haiti and Kosovo, but perhaps even his own father’s use of military force in Panama and Iraq.
Bush continued in the debate:
“…[I]f we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road.”
I was only 23 years old, and I’d never really followed politics before, but I loved this guy. A conservative president who would keep us out of senseless wars and occupations was just the kind of man I could support wholeheartedly. He spoke about how Clinton had brought about low morale in the military due to long deployments to occupied regions of questionable value to our national interests.
Five months earlier, Gore had attacked Bush as a “new isolationist,” drawing a rebuke from Bush’s chief foreign policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice:
“If what the Vice President is saying is that the post-Cold War mission of American armed forces is to just intervene in other people’s civil wars because we might be able to help, I think that’s a headline.”
It is striking how things have totally reversed since then. Six years after that debate, Bush was approaching the midterm, giving excuses for why we were still on a nation-building mission in Iraq.
The Bush Doctrine
It is far too easy, and incorrect, to argue that Bush’s foreign policy position had to reverse after 9/11. The terror attacks did become the origin of the “Bush Doctrine,” and that was a good thing: any nation not with us in arresting and killing terrorists is, by default, with the terrorists. And it makes perfect sense. We would treat as enemies not just terror-sponsor states, but also those governments who knowingly look the other way or are obstinate and uncooperative. Saddam Hussein was an enemy. That was the lesson of 9/11.
But even the Bush Doctrine does not necessarily lead to the Iraq War. We don’t have to, and cannot, invade every enemy — we’ve now learned that lesson at great cost in American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. We’re staring down two new evil nuclear powers, and our military is stretched thin deployed around the world — a sure sign, as Bush himself said in 2000, of “a serious problem coming down the road.”
We never had anything resembling specific or even general information suggesting an Iraq-backed terrorist attack on the United States, or any substantial level of cooperation between al Qaeda and Saddam. Even accepting the disputed intelligence suggesting uranium purchases, and Saddam’s defiance on the issue of weapons inspections, there was no evidence that the “gathering threat” in Iraq would “gather” in anything less than a decade, if ever. Our failure to find weapons of mass destruction highlights that fact.
Saddam had defied us for years. That’s one reason for the invasion, but it’s also a reason against it. Why did we suddenly turn a long-standing problem into a crisis? This is a hard question for many conservatives to ask. We all trusted Bush implicitly, even those of us who did not want to invade. We prayed for a swift victory once it began, and we bristled as ignorant leftists shrieked, out of knee-jerk opposition to any American action whatsoever.
But the lack of rationale for the war is glaring in hindsight. By 2006, it had just become too difficult for Bush and Congressional Republicans to justify to the voters why we were still there. It wasn’t just America-hating anarchists anymore, but ordinary voters who couldn’t buy the White House talking points.
Iraq and the Election
The explanation that Iraq is “a central front in the war on terror” proved unsatisfying to the electorate. Whatever tangential connection Iraq previously had to al Qaeda is dwarfed by their presence in that country now.
What’s worse, we have made ourselves indispensable to Iraq’s stability. We can’t leave now, Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) argued in a debate in October, because “the government will collapse and the terrorists will take over.” This argument, intended to explain why we are still there, in fact highlights the absurdity of the invasion in the first place. Terrorists were never on the verge of taking over Iraq before we invaded.
We wisely entered an unstable Afghanistan to strengthen it and take out some heavy hitters from al Qaeda. But it’s another matter to overthrow a much larger and internally stable (if despotic) country, whose connection to terrorism was at best tenuous, consisting mostly of terrorists backed by Iran and Iraq against each other.
No, al Qaeda was not totally absent from Iraq. But surely we did not invade and occupy an entire country simply in order to catch Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the one major al Qaeda player we knew Saddam was harboring before the war.
The White House also offered the curious argument that our fight in Iraq has attracted the terrorists like a moths to the flame, so that al Qaeda is somehow too busy fighting us there to strike us here. This may be okay for a campaign slogan, but it only took 19 Islamic zealots and a few hundred thousand dollars to kill 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Is the Iraq conflict so labor-intensive and so important to the terrorists that they are too busy to send ten guys over here to plant a bomb?
The news that al Qaeda has made their Iraq insurgency a self-sustaining, even profitable business turns on its head the notion that we have “opened up a new front in the War on Terror.” It would be more accurate to say that they have opened up a new front in their war on us.
The deteriorating situation in Iraq led ordinary voters, not just the kooks, to question the occupation of Iraq and to reject Republican candidates, who mostly had no choice but to defend it. The Democrats won on this issue by default, not because they offered a vision or a solution in Iraq, but because the Republican vision was unacceptable. That was the lesson of 11/7.
The Right Choice
President Bush, wrongly blamed for many things, is indeed to blame for making so many conservatives commit themselves to a neo-Wilsonian foreign policy of shaping the world according to our image and likeness — a policy both unworkable and un-conservative.
September 11 never justified such a change in Bush’s original foreign policy vision. Today the military suffers from the same problems with which Bush faulted Clinton during Election 2000: over-extension, inability to redeploy quickly if new problems arise, and needless separation of family members over long deployments of questionable value.
President Reagan, for all the weapons he built and his use of tough diplomacy, never got us involved in a real war or a long-term occupation, despite the much graver threat posed by the enemies of his day. Conservatives have heard the voters speak on 11/7, and we need to make up our minds again about whether we think it our mission to re-shape the world, or simply to fight our enemies where it makes sense to do so.
David Freddoso is a political reporter for Evans and Novak Inside Report