The new issue (Sept. 10) of National Review carries a short piece by Ramesh Ponnuru in which he offers some suggestions in hindsight for how the Republicans might have minimized their losses in 2006. Ponnuru rejects the idea that the Iraq invasion was a political mistake since, after all, the war served Republicans pretty well in 2002 and 2004. (Sound cynical? Ponnuru offers this disclaimer: "It should go without saying that it would be grossly immoral to launch an unnecessary war to win an election, or to flinch from a necessary one for fear of losing one." The latter part of that sentence seems to me a sly way of insinuating that Iraq was a necessary war, without actually taking up the challenge of making the case.)
Ponnuru has two common-sense suggestions for how, having got us into the desert in the first place, the Republicans could at least have put themselves in a better position: they could have put Ahmad Chalabi in charge from the get-go, to make it less obviously an occupation; and Bush should have fired Rumsfeld in 2006 and begun the surge a year earlier.
These are, from a strategic and political perspective, fair points, but they don't go nearly far enough. The first suggestion is so obvious--it's the very thing that I, and many others, expected Bush to do at the conclusion of the invasion--that it actually raises a more important question than it answers: why Bush didn't take this route of installing a Saddam-lite dictator is precisely what pro-war conservatives need to address. But the answer to that question would hit too close to home for many in the conservative movement: Bush, like many neoconservatives and "neo-Reaganite" conservative intellectuals, seemingly does at some level believe in democracy, as well as in a nigh-infallible American know-how that would allow us to occupy a country for months and years and, in so doing, actually advance it along a course to freedom. It's a mindset that emerges when Fukuyama's "end of history" meets Madeline Albright's "indispensable nation."
Conservatives who favored the war from the outset might have been able to minimize its political (and, more importantly, strategic and human) damage had they been willing to reject this blatantly ideological construct. But they didn't. I can see three reasons for that: first, it would have entailed friction with the neoconservatives (and even, by implication, an acknowledgment that paleoconservative criticisms of "nation building" were right all along -- a concession that might open questions about the validity of the war in the first place); second, it would have created friction with the Hitchens / Berman pro-war Left, breaking the grand ideological coalition in support of the war; and, third, it might have prompted the American public to consider more seriously the less-than-idealistic intentions of the U.S., which again could have led to dissension and loss of support for the invasion, as well as for the Republicans. In short, this practical criticism, so sensible in light of four years' hindsight, would have been "off message" in 2003.
Even from a hawkish perspective, all that idealistic talk of democracy and human rights, which admittedly was not the primary reason the war's advocates originally offered for the invasion, was detrimental. Such language is not, of course, the traditional vocabulary of the Right -- though actually, it is: it was Reagan's vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, Goldwater's too. Neither of those men would have actually gone through with an attempt to foster democracy like this, but it's time to step back and admit that the rights-based, democratic rhetoric so beloved of the Right and the Left creates a psychological pressure to live up such lofty ideals. The consequence is what we see in Iraq, as well as the political blowback here at home.
A necessary question, then, is what action would Ponnuru propose now in order to prevent this situation from happening again? Is he prepared to launch into a very hard critique of the democratist Right? I suspect not: but if not, his suggestion that Bush should have opted for a strong man is idle.
There is, of course, the further point that a strong man--especially Chalabi, a crook with ties to Iran, distrusted by just about everyone--would have entailed a different set of problems for Iraq and for America. If he were as brutal and effective at keeping the country together as Saddam had been, there would be quite a lot of buzz back here in the U.S. about the hypocrisy of trading one dictator for another: again, conservatives would have had to fall back to national-interest rhetoric, and that may not have helped the Republicans so much in 2004. Things may have gone even worse: suppose Chalabi had been ruthless but ineffective. Would Bush have removed him, leading to the same outcome we now have (only somewhat worse all around), or would Bush and the Republicans have gone into 2004 as having set up a dictator in Iraq who couldn't be trusted by us and who was leading Iraq into a civil war? I don't think that scenario would have played out very well for the GOP in 2004. Just look at how much the resounding, but unresolved, success of the 1991 Gulf War helped George H.W. Bush in 1992.
For Ponnuru's first piece of advice to have worked, hawks inside and out of the administration would have had to have been more pragmatic and less idealistic, and things would have had to have gone just swimmingly well in Iraq to make the issue a boon for the GOP. Neither of those outcomes would have had much prospect.
As for the second suggestion, yes, there was a point in 2006 at which Bush, with the support of the conservative movement and Republican base, could have sacked Rumsfeld and announced he was sending more troops. to Iraq. But I can't see that either action would have markedly improved the GOP's chances that November. Both measures would have testified that even Bush knew that he had botched the war, a concession that would not exactly have hurt the Democrats. More importantly, however, it might well have made 2006 a referendum on whether to escalate this mismanaged war by supporting the GOP and sending more troops to Iraq or to de-escalate the war by supporting the Democrats. I think we know how Democrats would have responded to that question, and I strongly suspect that independents would have answered it the same way. Firing Rummy and throwing more troops into the fray would not have redeemed the war in the eyes of the American public.
Having made all of these criticisms, let me say that I do appreciate Ponnuru asking these questions and considering the counterfactuals--this is something that all conservatives, indeed all informed Americans, ought to be doing, whether they are pro-war or antiwar. But it's not enough to provide pat, common-sense answers: we have to look more deeply at why the war developed, politically and militarily, as it did, and whether such minor variations to the theme as those that Ponnuru suggests would have significantly improved matters. Turning the country over to Chalabi and drawing down the American presence--better yet, getting out--would have been far better for our own country, if for no other reason than that we would have had fewer of our men and women killed over the past four years. But, without saying that the way things happened was banusic and inevitable, I do think the ideological tendencies of the conservative movement and the American government made the outcome we actually got the most likely of them all. That's why a reconsideration has to be much more thoroughgoing -- and must ask whether this war was really worth fighting in the first place.