By David Beilstein
Victor Davis Hanson, the renowned military historian, wrote a National Review Online column about Peggy Noonan’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal, where the former Reagan speechwriter outlined the political pathologies the Iraq War created within the Republican Party.
Hanson’s point is to cut through Noonan’s list of pathologies the Iraq invasion created within those classical liberal groups, more or less, interested in the ideological identity of the Republican Party.
Hanson concedes Iraq is a controversial hurtle for the G.O.P., but intimated matters are more complicated than many perceive. The esteemed historian does say the war’s conclusion created a gale of schisms between libertarians, paleocons, neocons, and G.O.P. establishment types.
Still, Hanson challenges Noonan’s conclusions about Iraq, saying,
Peggy Noonan recently enumerated countless pathologies that followed Iraq. Yet to examine her list is to learn just how misinformed we have become in our anguish over the intervention.
It was always unwise to compare Iraq to Vietnam. But seven years later, the curse of Vietnam, according to Hanson, has enveloped the Iraq War.
It has created a comparably shallow interpretation of the war on the basis of popularity, says Hanson.
We can perhaps admire either those who were consistently against the war when it was at first unpopular, or those who kept their support when it became even more unpopular. But how does political convenience — in a war that hinged on the enemy’s destroying our morale — translate into courage or wisdom?
Had we given up on the war in 2005, there would not be a viable Kurdistan today or any chance of a stable Iraqi government. The reputation of the American military would have been shredded. For a power with global responsibilities, losing an unpopular war is even worse than fighting one.
Perhaps wise options only existed had America resisted invasion of Iraq? With Hanson, I confess, once America invaded Saddam’s tyrannical empire, little choice remained but to win the war.
Losing a war is bad enough—losing a bad war, however counter-intuitive it might appear, is worse.
Hanson is correct that political convenience should not be the fuel American foreign policy decision-making runs on. But neither should America going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, shape American foreign policy. Reshaping the Middle East in order to make it safe for democracy is pure Wilsonian utopianism.
Larger concerns arise.
It does trouble the privacies of your correspondent’s mind Hanson equates America’s global responsibilities with invading Iraq—and such decision-making’s attendant philosophical reasoning.
Where do—as it were—or what limits can be put on America’s global responsibility? Such reasoning simply on the basis of “possibility” can logically be used to involve American military power all over the world.
At the same time, Hanson scores a few large points when it comes to why the G.O.P.’s electoral fortunes plundered—it is hardly just Iraq.
Noonan believes that Iraq “ended the Republican political ascendance that had begun in 1980.” Hardly. Bill Clinton did that in 1992, when he defeated once-popular incumbent Republican George H. W. Bush (and then was reelected for a second term). Al Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush in 2000.
I have been saying for a while now William Jefferson Clinton was a cruel aberration to the Grand Old Party. Clinton didn’t fail economically, as predicted by uproarious Republicans. The reverse happened.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, President George H.W. Bush double-downed on the rhetoric of economic impoverishment if Clinton were elected. It had been an effective in the past. Pop conservatism might as well have said the end of times was awaited America if the hyper-sexual Gov. Clinton ever reached the Oval Office innards.
Generations of Republicans successfully convinced the American people from 1972 until 1988—with empirical and experiential evidence during Jimmy Carter’s presidency—that if Democrat’s got control of national economic policies, disaster awaited.
And for a spell such sentiments remained true. With Clinton, however, it didn’t happen. And conservatives advertised Clinton as the “liberal’s liberal”—another tax and spend Democrat likely to denude economic expansion on grandiose levels.
Instead, Clinton passed a series of conservative legislation, balanced budgets, erected welfare reform laws—pressed by the 1994 G.O.P controlled Congress—and cut capital gains taxes. It was Clinton and not either Bush who claimed: “The era of big government is over.”
Economic fortunes boomed.
Finally for faithful Democrats—following the invasion of an economic and cultural Gehenna, stimulated by LBJ’s Great Society blunder, and the economic doldrums of President Jimmy Carter—Democrat’s could hoist election banners, boasting of a “20 million new jobs” economic boom—with billions of projected surpluses promised.
Spirits soared! and Republicans(especially the stentorian rabble of popular conservatives),were easily dismissed as inflammatory. It is a short and immensely small gap in the human mind between inflammatory and falsehood.
Going into November of 2000, the American people looked back on a two-term Democrat president in Bill Clinton whose tenure happened during economic recovery and prosperity.
Conservatives had little more than a bad mood and sour sportsmanship. Certainly, in regards to judges; the ideology of those in the administrative state, there was much to oppose about President Clinton. Politics of preference, multi-cultural idolatry, and post-1960’s sex education forced on local community schools, all deserved ideological scorn from classical liberals—and political defiance. But in terms of political discourse—how conservatism was superior and a stark alternative to progressive as-ninety, needed rhetorical flourish.
Conservative principals such as localism and Federalism—crucial to the preservation of state and local sovereignty, and conservation of our constitutional government were all ignored for show-pony hysterics.
Too many conservative leaders, and followers, were too aroused by Clinton carping. This proved entertaining for ideological conservatives in the short-term—but it did not expand a classical liberal inroads to move the country’s governing machinery—and people—in a more consistent conservative direction.
And that proved arbitrary and ineffective. Let us be as honest as the newly elected Roman Catholic Pope Francis is said to be: had Republicans had the economic record of President Bill Clinton—if Clinton was a Republican—conservatives would have run on that record for four election cycles.
Hanson is equally astute when reasoning about G.O.P. apostasy from conservative economic norms.
Did Iraq alone really undermine “respect for Republican economic stewardship,” as Noonan suggests? The war may have cost $1 trillion over a decade. Yet from 2001 to 2008, a Republican president (with help from a Republican-majority Congress for six years) ran up $4 trillion in debt — at that time, the largest borrowing of any two-term administration in the nation’s history.
But it is Hanson’s overall assessment of Noonan’s basic point where I’m conflicted.
Noonan writes of Republicans: “It [Iraq] ruined the party’s hard-earned reputation for foreign-affairs probity. They started a war and didn’t win it.”
We can argue over whether the result of the war was worth the cost. But by January 2009, the enemy was defeated.
My problem with Hanson’s above statement is not of its verity—but it’s political myopia. A political party does not get credit for winning a war vast majorities of country’s populace believe to have been a large error.
Nobody cares U.S. Military might won all major battle against NVA and Viet Cong military forces. U.S. causalities verses enemy losses in Vietnam are non-compare. But nobody cares because the consensus is—and has been, America should never set foot in Vietnam.
America beat the forces of tyranny in Iraq—destroying al Qaeda and insurgent forces.
But the American people presume the reason for the war—WMD (weapons of mass destruction) was either a gross mistake, or worse, a fabrication). I would assume most Americans believe the Bush administration made a mistake instead of a fabrication of intelligence—but either way, it cost 5,000 lives and paints a picture of immense incompetence.
There was a consensual government in Iraq, there were few monthly American casualties, and there was a plan to leave a small constabulary force to ensure stability and the sanctity of Iraqi borders and airspace. Noonan adds that “it muddied up the meaning of conservatism and bloodied up its reputation,” citing as proof the preferable and prudent foreign policy of Ronald Reagan.
But Reagan had his own foreign-policy problems. Do we remember Iran-Contra, when some in the Reagan administration recklessly and illegally facilitated the sale of weapons to a terrorist Iranian government — a crime that stained conservative credibility on antiterrorism for years to come?
Hanson’s reasoning is iffy. An immense gap exists between a presidential administration scandal (Iran-Contra)—which did not embroil a nation in an unpopular war—and a war of choice in Iraq which cost a trillion dollars, the main reason for the war, also, having turned out not to be accurate.
One could hardly think of a worse comparison.
Iran-Contra did not render the G.O.P.’s foreign policy unpopular in total. It did not create the spectre of incompetence instigated by Republican leadership in the eyes of the American people.
The Iraq War did.
Iran-Contra might have ensnared the Reagan presidency. And it made Reagan appear disengaged for a bit—certainly it affected his approval ratings, as they imploded temporarily. But it did not render an entire political party’s foreign policy as wrong-headed in voter’s minds.
Likewise, Iran-Contra did not create contra ideological movements and categories within conservatism—movements with a stake in the G.O.P.’s ideological identity, the way the Iraq invasion created the edifice for a myriad of libertarian-right and paleocons rebuke.
The Iraq invasion did so for the G.O.P.
Reagan left the White House on Jan. 20, 1989 with high approval ratings. George W Bush left with some of the lowest approval ratings. Of course, approval ratings do not norm policy—and should not be the basis of policy. Approval ratings don’t create moral categories of right and wrong.
They do not exhaustively propose good policy from bad policy. Still, Iran-Contra did not attenuate Republican ascendancy—nor the party’s reputation—like the Iraq War did some 20 years later.
And that is a big difference.
In the end, Hanson makes good clarifications. But Noonan captures common American perceptions—while sometimes misapplied—dictate electoral politics.
Republicans would do well not to run roughshod over their principals—still, that does not mean principals in light of conservative ideology go without reflection.
Wilsonian internationalism is not wise policy for America—and unnecessary for a rapt security. That it should be the default position of large personalities in conservative circles does not legitimize its inconsistency with the Founders vision of American polity decisions in regards to war and peace.