But we’ve also heard from two other Republican candidates, and they’ve been a lot more clear. Says Chris Christie: “I don’t think you can honestly say that if we knew then that there was no WMD, that the country should have gone to war.” And when Ted Cruz was asked whether he would have invaded, he answered: “Of course not. The entire predicate of the war against Iraq was the intelligence that showed they had weapons of mass destruction and that there was a real risk they might use them.”
There are few things we in the media love more than an intra-party argument (not to mention a front-running candidate stumbling), so this controversy is already getting plenty of attention and will surely get more. It’s encouraging to see an acknowledgement that the Iraq War was a mistake finally become majority opinion in the GOP, given that it was probably the greatest foreign policy catastrophe in American history.
But before we make too much of that shift, we need to be clear that the actual substantive disagreements between the candidates are much smaller than it would appear if you were just tuning in now. Republicans may be criticizing Jeb Bush, but they aren’t coming at him from the left, and they aren’t actually turning their backs on most of what his brother represented.
That isn’t to say there’s no difference of opinion within the party on Iraq. Most former Bush administration officials will defend the invasion to their dying day and insist that it was a grand idea, whether there were any weapons of mass destruction or not. Those who have less of a personal stake in the war vary more in their opinions (of all the actual and potential Republican candidates, only Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum were in the Senate in 2003 and voted for the resolution approving the war).
But opinions don’t actually vary all that much. All the candidates agree that we should increase military spending. With the exception of Rand Paul, all express an unrestrained enthusiasm for military adventurism. That’s one thing Iraq hasn’t changed: Republicans still believe that the application of military force is a great way to solve problems around the world.
The only difference of opinion comes after the first wave of bombing. Ted Cruz explicitly warns against nation-building, but he doesn’t express any reservations about the use of military force. Later today, Marco Rubio will give a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations about his foreign policy views, and they sound an awful lot like George W. Bush’s: increase military spending and spread American values with “moral clarity.”
Again with the exception of Paul, none of the candidates seems willing to grapple with the possibility that there are unintended consequences to military action that we need to be wary of. At most, they think the problems come only when you stick around too long after reducing a nation to rubble. And when you listen to them talk about Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, the word they use over and over again is “weak.” The problem is never that some situations we confront offer no good options, or that our decisions can backfire, or that there are places where America may not be able to set things right to the benefit of all. The problem is always weakness, and strength is always the solution.
Everyone understands why Jeb Bush is floundering around trying to answer the question of whether the Iraq War was a mistake from the beginning: It was his brother’s war. But neither he nor his opponents seem to have learned much from the experience, whether we’re asking about concocting phony intelligence to sell a war you’ve already decided you want, believing that all the “bad guys” in the world must be in cahoots, seeing every foreign policy question in black and white, or putting blind faith in the idea that “strength” is all you need to succeed.
The George W. Bush years provided an emphatic refutation of the ideas underlying Republican foreign policy, but few in the party seem to have gotten the message, even if they have some minor disagreements today. They might not be looking at the invasion of Iraq in exactly the same way, but few in the party are asking anything but the most superficial questions about what lessons we might learn from it.