Donald Trump is a baleful influence on American politics in my view, but he’s not wrong about everything. Part of the reason for his popularity is that he refuses to carry Republican baggage from the Iraq war.
Last May he mocked Sen. Marco Rubio, telling a Fox News interviewer:
These characters, like Rubio, made a total fool of himself on Chris Wallace’s program, talking about “We’re better off without Saddam Hussein.” Give me a break. Right now we have ISIS, which is worse than Saddam Hussein.
Sadly, he’s right about Rubio, and about the Republican mainstream in general. Listening to Rubio twist and turn on Iraq was excruciating. As for Iraq, Daniel Pipes had a better take in 2003: get rid of Saddam, install a strongman we like, and then leave. But that’s beside the point.
Despite strong public opposition to the Iran nuclear non-deal, President Obama wields an enormous advantage: he can tar his opponents with the mistakes of the early 2000s, as Eli Lake complained at Bloomberg News. Obama said:
The same columnists and former elected, former administration officials that were responsible for us getting into the Iraq war and were making these exact same claims back in 2002, 2003, with respect to Iraq.
That’s a wilful misrepresentation on many levels, most of all because none of the neo-conservatives who promoted “democratic globalism” (Charles Krauthammer’s phrase) propose to occupy Iran and build a democracy as they attempted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one is talking about boots on the ground in Iran (except, perhaps, for small special forces teams), but about surgical strikes against nuclear facilities.
Republicans, though, are terrified to use the “W” word (and I don’t mean Bush 43’s middle initial). My neo-con friends gave war a bad name. Norman Podhoretz, who fears nothing and nobody, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal that “there was no ‘better deal’ with Iran to be had”:
Unfortunately, however, I am unable to escape the conclusion that Mr. Obama is right when he dismisses as a nonstarter the kind of “better deal” his critics propose. Nor, given that the six other parties to the negotiations are eager to do business with Iran, could these stringent conditions be imposed if the U.S. were to walk away without a deal. The upshot is that if the objective remains preventing Iran from getting the bomb, the only way to do so is to bomb Iran.
But it’s hard to find a single elected Republican who is willing to state the obvious in in public. The Republicans are pushing a mirage of a “better deal” instead of proposing the use of limited military force. That gives the advantage to Obama in one of the decisive political contests of our time.
The trouble is that most Americans don’t trust us Republicans with military power. The last time they gave us a blank check, we lost 5,000 lives, took 52,000 battle casualties, sent 900,000 returning veterans to VA hospitals, spent $1 trillion, and disrupted millions of lives (with 1.5 million troop-years of deployment) with little to show for it. Iran’s regional hegemony began with the Bush administration’s 2005 decision to back the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi’ite leader Nouri al-Maliki. George W. Bush stuck with Maliki throughout, because he believed that democracy would fix Iraq and the rest of the region. And as long as we refuse to admit our mistakes, the voters won’t trust us. Why should they? The present mess in the Middle East arises from policies that both Obama and the Republican mainstream supported.
It’s painful that we have to hear the truth from the likes of Donald Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz has criticized American mistakes in Iraq, but hasn’t gotten the same level of public attention. Americans will begin to trust Republicans only after we admit that we made mistakes in the past, and promise that we will not demand great sacrifices from them in pursuit of ideological experiments like “democratic globalism.” And Heaven help us if Trump takes on the mantel of truth-teller.