The Iraq War and the GOP's Fortunes

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Yesterday, Culture11 hosted an interesting back-and-forth between John Schwenkler and James Poulos on the question of where the Iraq War (remember that?) fits into the Republican Party's current woes. I think there are strong points in both pieces. Schwenkler is clearly right, I think, that the Iraq War is the dark matter of GOP decline - even now that almost nobody's focusing on it, it's still exerting a downward pull on the Republican brand. The absence of WMDs and Iraq's post-invasion decline into chaos are two of the defining debacles in what's widely viewed as the broader debacle of recent Republican governance - and more than that, they're debacles that combine to undercut what's long been considered the central reason to vote for conservatives, namely their national-security chops. As such, I expect the way the war played out to to be a drag on Republican fortunes not only in this election cycle, but in many to come.

Yet even so, I think Poulos is right that Iraq is only one part of a broader pantomime - and right, as well, to be skeptical that the Republicans would have gained very much at all by engaging in some sort of breast-beating repudiation of the Iraq invasion during this election cycle. Maybe - maybe - if Dick Cheney had been a primary-season candidate, and some white knight (like, say, a very different Mitt Romney) had been looking to slay the dragon of Bushism and emphatically separate the GOP of 2008 from the GOP of the Bush Era, then having an extended argument about pre-emptive war and the "freedom agenda" would have been good for the party. But given the slate of candidates and, more importantly, the state of the conflict during the primary campaign - which took place, you'll recall, during a period when a (Republican-promoted) strategy was opening the possibility of salvaging something from the wreckage of the '04-'06 period in Iraq - I don't think that an agonized debate over the decisions made in 2003 would have made very much sense, either for the Republicans or for the country. Post-surge, post-2008, and post-2008, this is a debate the Right needs to have: I line up alongside Schwenkler in believing the Iraq War to have been misconceived, and in believing that conservatives need to learn from the Bush Administration's strategic mistakes as well as tactical ones. But in this particular election cycle, I actually think the McCain camp's broad approach to the issue - emphasize the successes of the Surge, criticize Obama for opposing it, promise to leave Iraq with honor, and downplay the question of whether we should have invaded in the first place - has been pretty much the best possible tack a GOP candidate could take.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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