How the Iraq war hurt Republicans

Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Beyond the thousands of casualties incurred, the millions of troops and civilians deployed, and the trillions of dollars committed, the most enduring legacy of the Iraq war will be the political movements it triggered in this country: It shattered Republicans’ monopoly on national security and eroded service members’ allegiance to the GOP.

The Republicans’ mismanagement of the war allowed Democrats to reclaim an issue lost to them since the Truman administration. Suddenly, the GOP wasn’t viewed as unquestionably strong on national security. It’s a shift that, since 2006, has profoundly affected elections and arguably contributed more than any other factor — save the economy — to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.

Gallery

We now know that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction on March 19, 2003, when U.S. troops invaded. This false casus belli alone would have been enough to tarnish the Republican brand. However, the Bush administration compounded that error with its failure to admit the existence of the insurgency, let alone plan for it, and its failure to provide adequate resources — until the troop surge of January 2007.

Senior administration officials made matters worse with their arrogant statements about the war and the troops’ plight — such as when then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz casually dismissed then-Gen. Eric Shinseki’s troop predictions as “wildly off the mark.” Or when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld glibly told troops scavenging for vehicle armor in Kuwait that “you go to war with the army you have.”

To those serving in Iraq at the time or preparing to go, like I was, these statements suggested that our Republican leaders cared little about the people they were sending into harm’s way.

For the three decades between Vietnam and the most recent Iraq war, voters trusted Republicans more than Democrats on national security. In late 2003, according to surveys by the progressive polling and strategy firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, the GOP enjoyed a huge advantage on the question of which party voters trusted more to handle national security, leading Democrats 54 percent to 25 percent. In 2004, voters told exit pollsters that they trusted George W. Bush over John Kerry to handle terrorism by a margin of 18 points.

However, as the Iraq war ground on, this gap narrowed sharply. By mid-2006, Republicans led Democrats on national security just slightly,42 percent to 37 percent. By September 2007, at the height of the troop surge, this gap shrank even more, with the GOP leading 44 percent to 41 percent, and a Gallup poll even showed Democrats leading Republicans 47 percent to 42 percent. The gap widened somewhat during the Obama administration, with Republicans retaking a small lead. But by 2012 Obama commanded a majority of public support on national security, helped by his successful winding down of the Iraq war and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

In addition to tarnishing Republicans’ reputation on defense, the Iraq war caused divisions that still plague the GOP. Beginning in 2002 and 2003, fissures grew between the neoconservative champions of the war, such as Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and the Republican foreign policy establishment, represented by men such as Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates and Colin Powell, who sharply criticized the Bush administration’s initiation and handling of the war.

Iraq-related spending also drove a wedge between the tea party and establishment Republicans who believed in spending more on the war and on defense generally. These fractures severely weakened the Republican Party on national security, and Democrats took advantage.

More than any other issue, Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war helped him unite the Democratic base and win the nomination in 2008. The conflict also gave Democrats a chance to find their voice on national security: They fused criticism of the war’s management and its cost to American interests abroad with support for veterans and military personnel at home. By backing the Post-Sept. 11 GI Bill and expressing concern about the treatment of veterans and service members, the Democrats improved their relationships with the veteran and military community, which had been strained since Vietnam. This rebranding helped the party immeasurably, as I experienced while leading the president’s outreach to veterans during the 2008 campaign.

Within the military, the Iraq war also caused a political realignment. After the draft ended in 1973, the military had drifted steadily rightward. The best indicator of this shift is polling by the Military Times, which surveys readers of the service-centric magazines, mostly career military personnel and their families. In 2003, 53 percent of those surveyed reported that they were very conservative or conservative, and 57 percent reported an affiliation with the Republican Party. By 2008, 47 percent of troops told Military Times that they tilted conservative, and 50 percent reported a GOP affiliation. In 2012, roughly the same percentage described themselves as conservative, but only 44 percent considered themselves Republicans.

These shifts are slight, but they suggest that while many military personnel still hold conservative views, they are less likely to be Republican than before the Iraq war. For the most part, it’s not that formerly Republican troops are attaching themselves to the Democratic Party. Rather, it appears that career military personnel are choosing in greater numbers to not affiliate with either party.

This alienation from partisan politics reflects how many combat veterans feel upon coming home. I experienced this disconnect when I returned from Iraq in 2006 and for years afterward, because I thought so few of my friends, family members and colleagues (let alone strangers or politicians) understood and appreciated my service. I also felt disconnected at work, because my law practice and policy work paled in intensity to what I had done in Iraq. It took me years to come down from the high of combat before I could fully understand why I felt so apart from the nation that sent me to war.

That disconnect extends to politics. Much of the political disenchantment felt by my fellow Generation X and Y combat veterans stems from the Republicans’ wartime failures. To the extent that veterans and military personnel participate in the electoral process, they have moved away from the Republican Party on a timeline that roughly coincides with the Iraq war.

In 2004, exit polls reported that Bush won veterans’ votes by 57 percent to 41 percent. In 2008, Obama narrowed this margin, with Sen. John McCain winning veterans’ votes by 54 percent to 44 percent. National exit polls did not account for veteran status in 2012. But a Fox News exit poll conducted in Virginia, a battleground state with a large population of veterans and military personnel, reported that Obama and Mitt Romney each got 49 percent of the military and veteran vote. And in 2008 and 2012, Obama raked in significantly more donations from active service members than did his Republican opponents, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Other factors have played a role, too. Today’s active and reserve force is more racially diverse and includes more women than at any time in its history. The force is also younger and more educated than the population as a whole, which explains why Democrats do better among younger veterans than the overall veteran population (the median age of U.S. veterans is about 62).

Even while the war was underway, combat veterans came home to run for — and win — seats in Congress, be appointed to high political office, or take leadership roles at businesses and nonprofits. Those who’ve fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have built social and political movements to address veterans’ issues and other causes. After serving in combat in Iraq, then-Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) leveraged his experience to lead Congress in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” On the Republican side, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) relies heavily on his combat experience from three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to inform his work on the House Armed Services Committee.

We don’t know whether these political realignments will stick. Neither party should assume that it has a monopoly on national security, nor any particular and lasting affinity with the military. A party’s record — and the allegiances of the veteran and military community — can shift or erode almost as quickly as a war can be lost or won.

pcarter@cnas.org

Read more from Outlook:

For veterans, is ‘thank you for your service’ enough?

I killed people in Afghanistan. Was I right or wrong?

Link to Bacevich piece

Friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

 
Read what others are saying