“Gravely Wrong And Unapologetic”: Neoconservatives; That Iraq Question Roiling The GOP Field Is Stupid
The Iraq hypotheticals currently ensnaring the Republican Party’s presidential candidates are “asinine” and the worst of “gotcha journalism,” argue some of the neoconservative thinkers who advocated most aggressively for the 2003 invasion.
Questioning whether the United States should have gone to war in Iraq is pointless, they say, because decision-makers never get to make future decisions with the benefit of hindsight.
“Nobody lives life backwards,” said Eliot Cohen, a founding member of the Project for a New American Century and later a top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “At the time, reasonable people could disagree over whether to go to war in Iraq. It’s really a silly hypothetical, and the people who ask it should know better. You don’t get to relive history that way.”
“It reflects more on the media’s obsession with a new litmus test,” said Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “One isn’t president or commander in chief in hindsight.”
The United States continues to suffer the consequences of the Iraq war: thousands of American lives lost at a cost of billions of dollars. Assessments after the initial invasion found that the massive weapons of mass destruction program the Bush administration used as one of the primary reasons to go to war simply didn’t exist.
And in the instability that followed the U.S. withdrawal from the country, another deadly terrorist group emerged: the so-called Islamic State, which has beheaded Americans and threatens U.S. allies in the region.
So the price of invasion has certainly been very steep, and worth assessing.
The press has savaged Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio over the past week for saying both that the invasion of Iraq was the right decision and that they would not have invaded Iraq with the benefit of current knowledge—that intelligence assessments of Iraq’s WMD program were wildly incorrect.
In the years after the invasion of Iraq, neoconservatives have expressed few regrets about their efforts to encourage the toppling of Saddam Hussein via invasion.
Bill Kristol, the founder and editor of the hawkish Weekly Standard, said that even knowing what we know now, he would have still pushed for an invasion.
“Then would have surged troops much earlier,” he said, “and would not have thrown it all away after the war was effectively won at the end of 2008.”
But Kristol doesn’t hold it against Republicans like Bush and Rubio for thinking differently: “Can’t blame candidates for not wanting to spend time and effort taking on the politically correct No position,” he said.
And those who disagree with The Weekly Standard’s editor, one of the most ardent advocates of the invasion, shouldn’t expect an apology. In an email to The Daily Beast, Kristol signed off:
The Iraq question, first asked by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly of Jeb Bush, should not have been unexpected. Nor was it inconsequential: The heart of the question is whether, absent the threat of a major Iraqi WMD program, the invasion of Iraq was still wise.
But both Cohen and Pletka said the structure of the question pointed to something deeper about American press coverage of American politicians—the desire to catch a politician off guard in a moment of uncertainty rather than trying to achieve a deeper understanding of where candidates stand on various issues and how they would react in a crisis.
“I think it’s an asinine question that says more about the politicization of debate than it does about the candidates themselves,” Pletka said.
Cohen, who wrote his first book in 1978 and joined the policy planning staff of the office of the secretary of defense in 1990, called the “gotcha journalism” view of foreign policy poisonous and counterproductive—and said it is more prevalent now than in previous years.
“In past eras in the United States, people would have serious conversations about foreign policy…which is going to be necessary, because the world is now such a complicated place,” Cohen said. “People are going to [need] the patience to examine each of the candidates on both sides and get a sense of where they stand.”
The press, he said, should focus on building up a “composite portrait” of presidential candidates and their foreign policy views on China and on Iran.
Added Pletka, “Wouldn’t you rather hear what they would do now about Iraq? Now that’s a harder question.”
“Anyone in their right mind hasn’t been happy if you look at Iraq—you certainly have to ask yourself [about] the return that we got for the investment in blood and treasure…People should ask themselves what are the lessons to be learned from the whole Iraqi experience,” Cohen said.
While he dismissed the current GOP debate as a “silly hypothetical,” Cohen did say revisiting the Iraq War is necessary. He identified three areas presidential candidates should be questioned about on Iraq: What the war taught us about America’s ability to acquire intelligence on weapons of mass destruction programs; the ability of the U.S. government to adapt to challenges such as counterinsurgency and building up a foreign military, and how to disengage properly after an invasion.
By: Tim Mak, The Daily Beast, May 20, 2015
“A Reminder About Netanyahu, Iraq, And Iran”: George W. Bush Listened To Netanyahu And The Neocons. The Rest Is History
Just a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked like a figure with huge influence in American politics. There he was addressing Congress, with Republicans practically carrying him into the House chamber on their shoulders. He was on every American television show he wanted, delivering his dark warnings of the second Holocaust to come if an agreement was signed with Iran. And now? Even after winning re-election, as Dan Drezner argues, Netanyahu has become irrelevant to the Iranian nuclear debate. There’s no one left for him to persuade.
And even though his argument always verged on the nonsensical—that any agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program “paves Iran’s way to the bomb,” whereas if we just walked away then Iran would abandon such ambitions and everything would turn out great—it is now becoming almost comical. He’s now demanding that Iran recognize Israel as a condition of any agreement, which as Josh Marshall notes would certainly be nice, but is completely irrelevant to the question of whether Iran has nuclear bombs or not. The agreement will succeed or fail, no matter what Benjamin Netanyahu thinks of it.
At the risk of piling on, I want to draw your attention to this piece by J.J. Goldberg of the Forward, which reminds us of just how spectacularly wrong Netanyahu has been on questions like this in the past:
In early January 2002, four months after the September 11 attacks, Israeli national security council director Uzi Dayan met in Washington with his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice. She told him—to his surprise, he later told me—that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. A month later Dayan’s boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, met with Bush in the White House and offered some advice, based on decades of Israeli intelligence.
Removing Saddam, Sharon said, according to three sources with direct knowledge, will have three main results, all negative. Iraq will implode into warring tribes of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. You’ll be stuck in an Iraqi quagmire for a decade. And Iran, a far more dangerous player, will be rid of its principal enemy and free to pursue its ambitions of regional hegemony. Bush didn’t agree.
Israeli leaders continued pooh-poohing Iraq all spring. Dismissal turned to alarm in August, when Iranian dissidents released evidence that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. In September Sharon told his cabinet to stop discussing Iraq. It was annoying the White House.
On September 12, however, a different Israeli voice visited Washington: ex-prime minister-turned-private citizen Benjamin Netanyahu. A longtime Sharon rival, closely allied with Washington’s neoconservatives, he’d been invited to address the Republican-led House as an expert on Iraq. Baghdad, he said, was hiding mobile centrifuges “the size of washing machines.” Moreover, “if you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.” Throughout the Middle East, including Iran, populations will be inspired to topple their own dictators.
Bush, of course, listened to Netanyahu and the neocons, not Sharon and his generals. Alas, Sharon was right. Iraq imploded. Iran surged. The invasion had reverberations, but hardly positive. The rest is history.
I sometimes feel like as a country we’re already beginning to forget what a spectacular catastrophe the Iraq War was. It was probably the single biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, and part of what made it so maddening was the insistence of its boosters that it was going to be not just easy but the source of unending joy and happiness for the United States, the Middle East, and the world. They mixed their frenzied fear-mongering with the assurance that anyone who raised any doubts was a Saddam-coddler who didn’t really want our Arab friends to receive the blessings of democracy, prosperity, and peace that were sure to result from our invasion. They didn’t say, “This is going to be difficult and unpleasant, but we have to do it”; instead, they said, “This is going to be great!”
And today, the conservative narrative is that, sure, a couple of things went slightly wrong along the way, but if Barack Obama hadn’t come along and screwed everything up, today Iraq would be thriving and peaceful and it all would have turned out just as they predicted in 2002. That belief forgives them for their part in the calamity, of course.
Bibi Netanyahu wasn’t an “expert” on Iraq, and he isn’t an expert on Iran. Perhaps after the last couple of months, we can finally put to rest the idea that we should take his opinion on anything into account as we’re considering what we should do.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 7, 2015
“Hey, GOP: Give Peace With Iran A Chance”: There’s No Reason To Listen To The Warmongers Who Always Get This Stuff Wrong
I’m not an expert on these things, so I don’t know what I think of the Iran deal yet. Some people I know who are certainly pro-deal and know something about all this found the agreed-upon framework to be more detailed than they expected, so that’s good. But there are many more details to be worked out and many rivers to cross.
But you know who else I bet isn’t an expert on these matters? Scott Walker. And I’d invite the Wisconsin governor to join me in withholding judgment until we’ve had the chance to study the fine print and ask experts what it all might mean, but I suspect that would be pretty futile. Greg Sargent on Thursday afternoon picked up on a revealing comment Walker made to, who else, a right-wing talk radio host. The host, Charlie Sykes, actually asked Walker a skeptical question. They get so discombobulated when someone who’s supposed to be on the team asks a real question. And look at what Walker said:
SYKES: You have said that you would cancel any Iranian deal the Obama administration makes. Now would you cancel that even if our trading partners did not want to reimpose the sanctions?
WALKER: Absolutely. If I ultimately choose to run, and if I’m honored to be elected by the people of this country, I will pull back on that on January 20, 2017, because the last thing—not just for the region but for this world—we need is a nuclear-armed Iran.
By “our trading partners,” Sykes means chiefly England, France, and Germany—the other countries (along with Russia and China) involved in the Switzerland negotiations. This is a major point of disagreement between liberals and conservatives, because conservatives say that we should have walked away from the Lausanne table and regrouped with our trading partners and imposed even tougher sanctions to bring Iran more quickly to its knees. Liberals contend, as President Obama did during his Rose Garden announcement of the deal, that these partners don’t want to maintain sanctions, and that if we’d walked away, it would have been the sanctions regime that that would have cracked, not Iran.
So Sykes was saying here to Walker: If the sanctions collapse, which will leave Iran on stronger economic footing and take out of our hands the one club over them we have—even at the risk of that happening, you’d cancel a deal? And Walker said yes. Not “depends on the deal.” Just “absolutely.”
The man is not in the realm of evidence here. He is in the realm of dogma, and dogma is all we’re going to get from these people. As I’m writing these words, we have yet to see the statements from most of the GOP presidential contenders, but gaming out what they’re going to say is hardly history’s greatest guessing game. Marco Rubio did come out of the gate pretty fast with a statement whose money line referred to “this attempt to spin diplomatic failure as a success.” You remember him: the same Rubio who doesn’t know that Iran and ISIS are enemies.
I once thought there would be a chance that Rand Paul might say something more interesting. He’s “dark,” his press office says, until after Easter, so we’re apparently not getting anything out of him now. But no matter. Whatever his past interesting heterodoxies on foreign policy, he now knows he just has to bash Obama and say what the rest of them are saying, and so in all likelihood he will.
Thus, one interesting question for the coming weeks: Will there be one Republican, just one, either among the candidates or in the Congress, who will actually step forward to say something like, “You know, now that I’ve read this and talked to experts, I’ve concluded that it’s worth giving this a shot?” One? You probably laughed at the naiveté of the question. I admit it does sound naive, but this shouldn’t allow us to lose sight of the fact that it’s tragic that things have come to this point, that we simply accept in such a ho-hum way that the Republicans are going to oppose anything with Obama’s name on it, not just when it comes to tax policy and such, but matters of war and peace.
This seems a most apt time to remember some aspects of the neoconservative track record that they’d rather the rest of us forget. North Korea is one, remember that one? The Hermit Kingdom started working on a nuclear program in earnest in the 1980s. In 1993, the North Koreans threatened to withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty. Diplomacy then commenced under Bill Clinton, leading to the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Framework had a checkered history—mostly because (cough cough) hardliners in Congress repeatedly refused to let the United States live up to its side of the agreement—but the long and short of it was that in the 1990s, North Korea didn’t aggressively pursue a nuclearization program.
Then came the neocons, and Dubya, and the axis of evil business, and soon enough North Korea was enriching uranium like there was no tomorrow. Remember the test bombs it was launching about a decade ago out toward Japan? All that started because Pyongyang took Bush at his belligerent word. Today it’s estimated that North Korea has enough separated plutonium for six to eight bombs. We rattle our saber, it makes smaller countries want to go nuclear. It’s really not very complicated.
Far from weakening North Korea, the neocon posture strengthened it. And speaking of strengthening, what about Iran? It’s the neocons’ war in Iraq that gave Iraq to Iran. They strengthened Iran. And if they get their way they’re going to do it again, if and when they manage to kill this deal and then Iran says OK, the hell with you, we’re building the bomb as fast as we can.
I’m not all yippee, Nobel Peace Prize for Kerry about this deal. I expressed my reservations the other day, and they remain. The administration deserves credit on one level just for getting this far—negotiations like these are amazingly hard. But we’re still only across midfield here.
Even so, if it’s hard to decide what precisely to be for, it’s laughably easy to figure out what to be against: reflexive and dogmatic opposition undertaken for the purposes of making sure you get your anti-Obama ticket stamped that will hasten the day either that a) Iran gets the bomb or b) we start a war to prevent that. Maybe it’s a little cliched to say give peace a chance, but thanks to the neoconservatives, we’ve given war plenty of chance, and all it’s done is strengthened Tehran and given us ISIS. Will these people ever look in the mirror?
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 3, 2015
Are the neoconservatives turning on Jeb Bush? It would be ironic, considering the men his brother turned to for foreign policy advice. It would also be highly problematic—since foreign policy establishment hawks should represent one of Bush’s few natural constituencies on the right. But it’s hard to observe recent developments and not suspect something is afoot.
I’ve often observed that Sen. Rand Paul has to walk a fine line in order to keep all the disparate elements of his coalition together, but it’s increasingly looking like Jeb Bush is having to do the same thing. He has the legacies of his father and brother to contend with. And while these legacies aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, they aren’t necessarily complementary, either. And therein lies the trap for Jeb: Does he alienate the GOP’s main cadre of foreign policy activists and thinkers, or does he saddle up with them and risk being seen as the second coming of his brother?
The foreign policy “realist” community hopes Jeb will be the “smart” son and follow the “prudent” footsteps of his father. Bush 41 oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberated Kuwait without toppling Saddam, a move that—depending on where you stand—was either an example of prudence or cowardice. But neoconservatives prefer George W. Bush’s more aggressive foreign policy, and want the GOP to nominate a hawk in 2016. Now Jeb Bush’s campaign needs to figure out what kind of President Bush he would be, and he likely won’t be able to assuage the concerns of both camps.
The conundrum, presumably, began when Jeb announced his foreign policy team. Much was made of the fact that many of his advisers had served in previous Bush administrations. This was much ado about nothing. Any Republican who gained senior foreign policy experience in the last quarter of a century would likely have worked for a Bush administration.
More interesting was the amount of daylight between the foreign policy advisers who served his father and his brother—a cleavage that is especially noteworthy in the context of the larger discussion taking place right now, regarding Iran and Israel. There’s a lot of range between the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz and an old-school GOP realist like James Baker, yet both are on the list of Jeb advisers.
Speaking of Baker, the Washington Free Beacon, which is widely thought of as a neoconservative outlet, recently noted: “Jeb Bush’s selection of Baker as a foreign policy adviser has sparked concern among conservatives and in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. Baker is infamous for his hostility to Israel, having said during his tenure as secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration, ‘F–k the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.’ Baker is also a supporter of President Obama’s Iran negotiations.”
As the Free Beacon expected, Baker—who served as Secretary of State during George H.W. Bush’s administration—did not go easy on Israel when he addressed the liberal J Street conference. And this has led to some think that Jeb Bush might seek to follow his father’s foreign policy—not his brother’s.
In a world where Republicans are trying to out-hawk one another, this might sound absurd. But presidents have been known to govern differently from the way they campaign—remember in 2000 when Bush ran as the anti-“nation building” candidate? “The older Bush circle seems confident that Jeb sided with his father and Brent Scowcroft on the folly of letting the neocons push America into diverting from Osama to Saddam,” wrote Maureen Dowd. (It should be noted that Scowcroft penned a 2002 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” which was eerily prescient in many regards.)
Some are clearly worried that Dowd is right—that Jeb is a chip off the old block. “Whether Jeb disavows James Baker, & how quickly & strongly, could be an oddly important early moment in GOP race,” Bill Kristol tweeted (linking to a Politico story about Baker blasting Bibi). This isn’t an anomaly. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin writes that a source at a Jewish organization told her: “Jim Baker’s bitterly critical comments of Israel and Netanyahu conjured up the worst memories of the H. W. Bush administration’s confrontation with the Jewish state. Any 2016 campaign that takes advice and counsel from him will raise serious questions and concerns from the pro-Israel community.”
The comparatively moderate, intellectually inclined Jeb Bush would seem like a natural candidate for neoconservatives to rally behind. But Baker speaking at J Street while working for the campaign in some capacity is cause for concern. This is dangerous if prominent hawks start to suspect that Jeb might not be as friendly to their cause as the Ted Cruzes of the world. Kristol and Rubin would seem to be sending a message to Bush that he can’t take their support for granted. They need him to prove that he’s a lot more like Dubya than his dad. Given Jeb’s vulnerabilities with so much of the rest of the conservative coalition, they’re in a good position to make demands. And he’s not in a good position to deny them.
Politico is already reporting that Jeb Bush is distancing himself from Baker, noting that he “disagrees” with him on Israel. And writing at National Review Wednesday morning, Jeb made his pro-Israel position clear. Let’s see if that’s enough for the critics. If Jeb really wants to win the nomination, he might have to drop Jim Baker like a bad habit.
By: Matt Lewis, The Daily Beast, March 26, 2015
It’s been a while, so you may have forgotten just what a great time it was for the national security hawks widely known as neoconservatives back in 2002 and 2003. With the memory of September 11 still fresh and Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, there was little to stand in the way of the dream of remaking the map of the Middle East, the region that had so vexed us for so long. Democrats sure weren’t going to—most of them were only too eager to show that they weren’t lily-livered pacifists, so they provided barely any impediment at all to a new war.
Sure, when it came to justifying an invasion of Iraq, the hawks had to exaggerate a little here, twist the facts a little there, spin out ridiculous scenarios everywhere. But it would all be worth it once victory was won. Saddam Hussein would fall, we’d quickly set up a new government, and democracy would spread through the region as a glorious new age dawned, brought forth by the beneficent power of American arms.
Then, of course, everything went wrong. Four thousand Americans dead, a couple of trillion dollars spent, Iraq ripped apart by sectarian conflict, and one clear victor in the war: Iran, which saw a dangerous enemy removed by the U.S. and a friendly government installed in Baghdad. Back at home, the neocons saw themselves mocked and scorned, and even worse, saw Barack Obama become president of the United States.
But they stayed true to their faith. They did not abandon for a moment the idea that with the proper application of military force, any country in the Middle East can be made to bend to America’s will. They knew their time would come again.
And maybe it has, or at least that time is growing closer. Forty-seven senators, nearly all of the upper house’s Republicans, sent a letter to the Iranian government intended to persuade it against signing a deal currently being negotiated with the United States and five other countries. It may have been a P.R. fiasco, but it clarified Republican thinking. They all agree with Benjamin Netanyahu that a “bad deal” with Iran is worse than no deal at all. As far as they’re concerned, any deal the Iranians would agree to is bad almost by definition. And if there’s no deal, then the case for war becomes so much clearer.
On Sunday, one such hawk, Joshua Muravchik, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post stating bluntly what many of them were probably thinking but were afraid to say: Iran’s leaders can’t be reasoned with, sanctions won’t work, and that leaves us with only one alternative. “Does this mean that our only option is war? Yes, although an air campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would entail less need for boots on the ground than the war Obama is waging against the Islamic State, which poses far smaller a threat than Iran does.” In other words: Urgent as the need for war is, this will be easy. You might even call it a cakewalk.
How many neocons read Muravchik’s piece and went aquiver with delight? Sure, some people reacted with horror. But now it’s been said: War isn’t something we should fear or something to avoid. It should be welcomed and advocated without apology. There will be assurances of reluctance, of course—we wish it hadn’t come to this, truly we do!—but there will be no shame.
That’s particularly important; for such a long time, those who cheered us into war with Iraq have been told that shame is precisely what they ought to feel. But that kind of shame is not in the constitution of those who know that if you want to make an omelet, sometimes you have to bomb a few chicken farms to dust. And what Iran offers now is redemption. The success of this next war will wipe away everything that went wrong with the last one. This time, we’ll get it right.
We’ll destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities from the air in a series of precision strikes that leave their targets in rubble and produce no collateral damage. The people of Iran will cheer the American warplanes, then take the opportunity to overthrow the regime that has oppressed them for so long. With the Iranian problem solved, Israel will be safe and all the conflicts of the region will quiet, fade, and then disappear. Democracy and freedom will spread, for real this time. And everyone will look to the neocon hawks with admiration in their eyes and say, “You were right. You were right all along.”
That is their dream. And it will be easier to realize than you may think—at least up until the point where the bombs start falling. Spend the next year and a half sowing the seeds, writing the op-eds, going on television, giving the speeches, making the dark predictions of cataclysm should we fail to muster the courage to act. If the Iranians walk away from negotiations, declare that we now have no choice but to use force; if there is an agreement, declare that its weakness is precisely why we have no choice but to use force. Condemn those who disagree as weaklings who refuse to stand up to the ayatollahs and their plan to destroy Israel and then the United States. Pressure the Republican presidential candidates to take the most hawkish position possible, as they compete to see who’s the toughest and strongest. If next November brings the blessed return of a Republican to the White House, with a Republican Congress behind him, the war will be all but begun.
Yes, the neocon moment may be at hand once again. Aren’t you excited?
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, March 15, 2015