Editor’s Note: Paul Waldman is a senior writer with the American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine, and a blogger for the Washington Post.
Paul Waldman: Rumsfeld's remarks, GOP candidates' saber rattling appear to show they think there's virtually nothing to learn from Iraq War
Graham wants 10,000 troops in Iraq; Walker: no deal with Iran; Rubio quotes an action movie. These approaches ignore complex reality, he says
Hindsight is 20-20, but only some of us are blessed with the kind that allows us to excuse our own mistakes by saying that back when we were making them, we knew things would work out terribly. Such is the wisdom of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who recently said of the Iraq War, “the idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic. I was concerned about it when I first heard those words … I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment of their histories.”
Oh. Well thanks for letting us know that now, as opposed to, say, 12 years ago.
Of all the lessons we should have taken from the Iraq War, the most important may be this one: If you start a war in the Middle East, things probably won’t go according to plan. Yet to listen to some of the contenders for the GOP nomination talk, there’s virtually nothing to learn from the Iraq War. They’re every bit as certain that more force will solve problems there, as former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld were back in 2002.
They assure us that the only thing stopping us from defeating ISIS is the proper combination of force and will. They’re ready to put large numbers of ground troops into Iraq (the 450 additional “advisers” the White House will soon be sending are obviously but a sign of weakness and indecision), and are practically yearning for a military confrontation with Iran. They’ve expressed opposition not just to the particular deal the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran to restrain its nuclear program, but to any such deal; Scott Walker, for instance, said he’d revoke any deal “on Day One” of his administration, which means that a military confrontation is the only remaining option.
Lindsey Graham wants to send 10,000 troops to Iraq, and he makes it sound like just a down-payment; when he was asked about the fact that Americans may be worn out by so much war, he responded, “Then don’t vote for me.” The implicit message is always the same: This problem has a simple answer.
As Marco Rubio recently said, “On our strategy on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie ‘Taken.’ Have you seen the movie ‘Taken?’ Liam Neeson. He had a line, and this is what our strategy should be: ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.’” And Rubio is supposed to be the one with sophisticated ideas on foreign policy.
There’s a reason movies like that one are popular: It’s satisfying to see a noble hero lay waste to the bad guys and save the damsel in distress, with everything wrapped up neatly at the end of 90 minutes. But back in the real world, applying military force 6,000 miles away comes with nothing but complications.
Allies turn to enemies, our admirable goals are sometimes unappreciated by the people who live in areas we’re bombing, new governments don’t have the legitimacy or capability to rule, previously hidden tensions burst to the fore, killing one terrorist leader results in an even worse one taking his place, corruption defeats all efforts to eradicate it, and a thousand unpredicted hurdles stand between our good intentions and the outcome we hoped for.
We’ve seen all that and worse in Iraq, and it should teach any sensible person that the next military adventure in the region will come with a trunk full of unintended consequences, but we won’t be able to open it and see what they are until it’s too late. That isn’t to say that some future military action or even another full-scale war might not be the best of our bad options in a particular situation. But experience should have granted us a bit of humility, to understand that uncertainty is built into all our foreign policy decisions.
Politicians don’t like uncertainty, any more than Donald Rumsfeld does. Uncertainty is for the timid, for those without the boldness to thrust American might outward and grasp the glory that surely awaits. So next time, they promise, things will be different. Next time we’ll right all the wrongs of the past. Next time they really will greet us as liberators. Next time it will all be simple.
And if that’s not how it goes? Like Rumsfeld, they’ll probably say that they saw it coming all along. And it’s somebody else’s fault.
Asked whether we should have invaded Iraq, several Republican presidential candidates have tied themselves in knots trying to simultaneously acknowledge that of course the answer is no – while still somehow staying loyal to everything their party has stood for on the issue over the last 12 years. But the “If we knew then what we know now” question isn’t the one they should be answering. The real question is what we should do now, knowing what we know now. And yet the answers don’t seem to have changed in all that time.