They're all still lying about Iraq: The real story about the biggest blunder in American history -- and the right wing's obsessive need to cover it up

Conservatives are trapped in an outdated and delusional worldview. Rubio, Jeb and media sycophants make it worse

Published May 24, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Larry Downing)
(Reuters/Larry Downing)

Republicans’ verbal gyrations over the Iraq War should not be dismissed as the usual rhetorical jabberwocky of an election season. Their stumblings and justifications provide an important window into a larger, crucial story. They reveal that Movement Conservatives remain rooted in a worldview that has been outdated for so long it is now delusional.

The tempest began in a teapot when Fox News’s Megyn Kelly asked Jeb Bush whether he would have gone into Iraq knowing what we know now. Bush said yes, defending the 2003 invasion that more than 70% of Americans now think was a mistake. This answer prompted astonished observers to wonder how he could have fumbled so badly. Within days, Bush stammered first to the suggestion that he had misheard the question, and then concluded that he would, in fact, have opposed the operation altogether.

But Bush’s first answer was not an error. It revealed his continuing loyalty to a series of principles to which he actually put his name in 1997. With those principles, a group of elite white men set out to revive the Cold War world that had given men like them control of the rest of humanity. Those principles dictated the Iraq War, and -- although they are completely obsolete -- they still animate Movement Conservatives.

The road to Iraq began in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That event marked the end of the Cold War, which had shaped an American generation. Until World War II, America had been just one of many nations jockeying for advantage in a multilateral world. Alliances had been made and broken, wars had been won and lost, and American leaders had shifted the nation’s weight to reflect current conditions around the world. World War II changed all that. America and the USSR emerged from that cataclysm as the world’s superpowers, locked into a Manichean battle for supremacy. For the next 44 years, fervent anti-communist warriors refused to recognize nuance or compromise in foreign affairs. They divided the world into white and black, good and bad, us and them.

When the USSR began to spin apart in 1989, the unraveling of the Cold War left these Movement Conservatives adrift. While many of them found their purpose by turning their attention to wiping the “communism” of social welfare legislation out of domestic life as it had been wiped out of the world community, others looked at the splintering of foreign affairs and despaired. No longer was America a superpower; it was again just one nation among many, unable to dictate the behavior of weaker nations.

The return to a multilateral world entailed a return to an awareness of complexity, in contrast to the simplistic divisions of the Cold War. President George H. W. Bush responded to this complexity by refusing to gloat as smaller nations left the USSR, then ended the Gulf War as soon as Iraqi forces had withdrawn from Kuwait, rather than pushing forward and taking control of Iraq itself. If President Bush’s prudence worried Movement Conservatives, they were horrified by what seemed to them the weakness and confusion of the Clinton years. America seemed impotent as Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Haiti shattered.

Movement Conservatives refused to recognize that what they saw as weakness and incoherence was an international adjustment to the realities of the same sort of multilateral world that had existed before the peculiar moment of the Cold War had divided the world between two superpowers and the third-world nations trying to carve out their own destinies within that division. This was not the world Movement Conservatives knew. They wanted back the world they had controlled. In a declaration of principles, they explained that they wanted an end to “incoherent policies” and called for a government that would “shape circumstances before crises emerge.” They demanded a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.”

In 1997, a group of Movement Conservatives set out to resurrect the Cold War moment that had made America supreme. In that year, political commentators William Kristol and Robert Kagan launched the Project for the New American Century. Its statement of principles called for dramatically increased defense spending to implement a strategic vision that would “shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.” America must “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values,” and “promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad.” America had a responsibility, the signatories to the statement said. The nation must “accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.” Dick Cheney, Francis Fukuyama, Norman Podhoretz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were among the original signers of the document. So was Jeb Bush.

The next year, members of PNAC urged President Clinton to launch a “determined program to change the regime in Baghdad.” Saddam Hussein had developed biological and chemical weapons, they said, with which he could destabilize the entire Middle East. He could threaten American troops, Israel, moderate Arab states, and “a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil.” Iraq, they said, was “ripe for a broad-based insurrection.” When Clinton bombed Iraq in late 1998 rather than launching an invasion, PNAC and its supporters, like Senate Majority leader Trent Lott and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, insisted he was weak.

When George W. Bush became president, 10 of the 18 men who had signed a letter urging Clinton to take out Saddam Hussein went to work in his administration. Donald Rumsfeld became defense secretary; Paul Wolfowitz was the assistant defense secretary. John Bolton became an undersecretary of state. Dick Cheney, an original PNAC supporter, became vice president.

Only eight months after Bush took office, 9/11 offered an opening to effect the new American foreign policy PNAC members so desperately wanted. The al-Qaeda terrorists who launched the attacks were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. But as soon as he heard of the carnage, Rumsfeld asked his aides to see if there was enough evidence to “hit” Saddam Hussein as well as Osama bin Laden. When it turned out there was not, the administration created it, cherry-picking evidence or even falsifying it to justify a war in Iraq. So convinced were they that their worldview was right, they refused to acknowledge reality.

Twelve years later, the war has cost more than $2 trillion and 4,500 American lives. Tens of thousands of American soldiers have been wounded. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died and more than two million have become refugees. The vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein strengthened Iran and created the conditions for the rise of ISL. By any standard, the Iraq War was an error of colossal proportions. But Movement Conservatives cannot surrender the idea of a Manichean world in which they rule America and America rules the world.

Rather than recognizing that their misguided attempt to recreate a bifurcated world in which America is preeminent created disaster in Iraq, Movement Conservatives are blaming the Iraq crisis on everyone else. Mistakes were made. David Brooks infamously spun his own righteous support for the war as a mistake based on bad intelligence, implying that the problems with the Iraq War can be laid directly at the feet of our intelligence agencies. This argument has been demolished by observers and participants both, from Greg Sargent to Paul Krugman to former Senator Bob Graham, D-Fla., who served as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the crucial time before the invasion. They point out that the intelligence the Bush administration presented about WMDs was misleading, at best. The job of blaming bad intelligence got harder on Tuesday night, when on “Hardball,” Bush’s CIA briefer Michael Morell said that administration officials had lied about the intelligence the CIA had presented to them. “I think they were trying to make a stronger case for the war,” Morell said.

With that avenue of excuse closing, Republicans turned to blaming President Obama for the debacle in Iraq. “I blame President Obama for the mess in Iraq and Syria, not President Bush,” said presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal agreed that the problems in Iraq were not “because of President Bush’s strength, but rather have come about because of President Obama’s weakness.” Thursday, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton agreed that the problems in Iraq came from Obama’s weak foreign policy. And William Kristol insisted that the war in Iraq was a success until President Obama “threw it all away.”

Their argument is clear: there was nothing wrong with their program. The problem was that others failed to execute it properly.

This loophole has let Republican presidential hopefuls deny accountability for Iraq while still embracing the same principles that drove the decision to start that war in the first place. Marco Rubio, who is trying to position himself as the leading Republican candidate on foreign affairs, blamed faulty intelligence for the Iraq debacle, but has offered voters the “Rubio Doctrine,” which mirrors the PNAC mission statement. It attacks President Obama for “ceding leadership to other countries” and refusing to “dictate our terms” to other nations. It calls for dramatically increased defense spending; the protection of American business interests overseas; and “moral clarity” to “restore American leadership to a world badly in need of it.” Ted Cruz also blamed faulty intelligence for the problems in Iraq, but his advisors tell a different story. John Bolton is informally advising Ted Cruz on foreign policy; just this week he defended the Iraq War, and believes a similar invasion would be the answer to the growing threat of Iran.

And where does Jeb Bush really stand? He was an original signatory to the 1997 PNAC statement of principles.

The debacle that became the morass in Iraq has roots in arguments far older than today’s debates over whether or not presidential candidates would have gone into Iraq knowing what we know now. Those debates illustrate a delusional view of foreign affairs based in a perilous worldview. That worldview establishes that a small group of elites can simply dictate reality, no matter how out of touch with the real world they are. It is the last-ditch fight of an aging group of white men who cannot accept that their supremacy was not because of their extraordinary worth but because the vagaries of history aligned, very briefly, to make men like them supreme. Those historical circumstances were unique, and they are long gone.

By Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College.

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