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Was the Iraq War a huge coup for liberalism?
Some prominent conservatives are laying the GOP's branding problems at the feet of George W. Bush's foreign policy. Is that fair?
 
U.S. Army soldiers prepare to leave Iraq in December 2011.
U.S. Army soldiers prepare to leave Iraq in December 2011. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"Last week's many Iraq war mea culpas were rich in irony," says Ross Douthat in The New York Times. "One by one, prominent liberals lined up to apologize for supporting a war that's responsible for liberalism's current political and cultural ascendance."

Douthat continues: The Obama presidency, the Democratic majority in the Senate, and a whole host of liberal policies far bolder "than either Al Gore or John Kerry had dared to offer" can all be attributed to "the backlash against George W. Bush's Middle East policies."

As Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway notes, "Douthat isn't alone in making this claim." As we mark 10 years in Iraq, a whole host of conservatives — Philip Klein at The Washington Examiner, Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, The American Conservative's Daniel McCarthy, and Samuel Goldman at The Week, among them — are blaming the Bush team's mismanagement of the Iraq War for the Republican Party's electoral setbacks and branding problems.

But Douthat doesn't stop with the damage that Bush's foreign adventurism has inflicted on Republicans. He also argues that the war destroyed Bush's own second-term agenda, leaving a "domestic policy vacuum" that was filled with a liberal wish list from Democrats emboldened and shaped by the anti–Iraq War movement. And the leftist gains weren't just in the legislative realm:

These liberal policy victories have been accompanied by liberal gains in the culture wars. True, there's no necessary connection between the Bush administration's Iraq floundering and, say, the right's setbacks in the gay-marriage debate. But cultural change is a complicated thing, built on narratives and symbols and intuitive leaps.... Even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren't culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy, and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration's blunders — the missing WMD, the botched occupation — have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness. Of all the Iraq war's consequences for our politics, it's this narrative that may be the war's most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome. [New York Times]

Not everyone thinks this is a fair assessment. While Douthat is right that the war galvanized the left, says John Amato at Crooks & Liars, "he's omitting a key ingredient of Bush's epic failure scope — the global financial meltdown." Without the economy imploding in September 2008, and Bush's $700 bank bailout, we might well have had a President John McCain.

Indeed, the Iraq War had nothing to do with the wave of social liberalism that has "proceeded apace all through the '70s, '80s, and '90s," says Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. And remember, while Obama has had some big domestic-policy achievements, he "has all but adopted Bush's foreign policy as his own."

To believe that Iraq was responsible for this, you have to adopt the perverse view that a huge foreign policy failure was responsible for (a) a continuation of that very foreign policy, but (b) a repudiation of Bush's completely unrelated domestic policy. That doesn't strike me as very plausible. Unfortunately the evidence suggests just the opposite: on a wide variety of measures, the effect of the Iraq War has actually been startlingly modest. It played no more than a bit role in ushering us into the Obama Era. [Mother Jones]

Actually, says Outside the Beltway's Mataconis, Douthat and the other blame-Iraq conservatives are "making some excellent points, and providing some guidance for a Republican Party that is still engaged in a conversation about how to re-create itself in the light of two consecutive presidential election losses in a row." 

Republicans still don't seem to understand just how unpopular the Bush administration's foreign policy, and its policies regarding the Iraq War specifically and intervention in foreign countries more specifically, [were] ... It's easy, and in many cases too easy, to point to a single factor to explain something as complicated as the reason why the Republican Party finds itself in its current predicament. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that the most mistaken and unpopular war in American history has had a significant impact on the party that initiated it. [Outside the Beltway]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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