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.