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Republicans: Now is the time to admit you were wrong about the Iraq War
The GOP must undo the damage to its foreign policy brand
 
Now? Yes, now.
Now? Yes, now. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton is doing it. Glenn Beck did it too. And Dick Cheney? Not so much.

This is the season for admitting you were wrong on Iraq in 2003. And all Republicans who either regret their vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq, or who were silent on foreign policy matters back then, should take this occasion to step up and say they'll never make the same mistake twice. To them I say: Do it for the sake of your conscience, and if not that, at least for the sake of your career.

In the Obama years, Republicans have habituated themselves to being noncommittal on policy questions. They are for cutting the budget, somehow. They are for repealing ObamaCare and replacing it with, well, something. They want tax reform, but let's not get into the details now.

In some ways, this makes political sense. Don't give your opponents targets to hit. But the damage that has been done to the Republican brand on foreign policy is not repairing itself. Obama's faults and flubs in that area aren't giving the GOP an advantage either.

So say it loud and proud: Iraq is a mess. We helped to make it that way. But we have no business putting American treasure, honor, and lives between ISIS and Nouri al-Maliki.

There's no better time than now, when the die-hard hawks are urging "re-engagement." Some of you were not in national politics at the time. South Carolina's Mark Sanford once said that he was against "preemptive war." Now that he's back in Congress, he should take the occasion to shout that out. Jon Huntsman studiously refused to issue judgment on the conflict and said that America's future was not in the Middle East but in the trade routes to Asia. Even if he's not made of presidential timber, he's an experienced foreign policy hand and potential secretary of state. Time for him to step up and join the chorus of "not again."

You might ask: Why should they when they currently get the benefit of ambiguity? Consider that only six Republicans voted against the war in Iraq in the House. Some would later join them, like Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.) of "Freedom Fries" fame, who changed his mind on foreign policy and opposed the surge. He has recently been the subject of primary challenges based almost entirely on his foreign policy views. The fewer GOP congressmen who make the truth of their views known now, the easier it is for hawks to pick them off in primaries. The more they are picked off, the greater the price for standing apart from the party. A caucus of 60 House Republicans is a school of thought, a cause of six is an exoticism. Peace-making Republicans will either stand together or hang separately.

Republican lawmakers should stand up now because it is also a necessary course correction for their entire party. Democrats survived the Cold War and the charge of "losing China" by overcompensating in their militarism and their anti-communism. Even then, the foreign policy electoral advantage of Republicans was massive for four decades. But the polarity of American foreign policy politics may have reversed.

Since the end of the Cold War, Democrats have beaten Republicans in the presidential popular vote in each contest but 2004. Even though the most prominent Democrats supported the Iraq War, the foreign policy disadvantage from that debacle has almost entirely accrued to Republicans; 2006 was a foreign policy election and Republicans were turned out en masse. They only came back in the highly unusual domestic policy backlash against Obama in 2010. Hillary Clinton lost the 2008 presidential nomination over Iraq. A mistake she won't make twice.

As panelists pointed out at the recent "New Internationalism" conference held by The American Conservative and (liberal-leaning) The American Prospect, popular opinion in England and the United States held Congress and the president from committing military resources to another regime change in Syria last year. The American people want a foreign policy that protects jobs, that promotes peace and prosperity. Four out of five Americans who Pew polled say that America should spend more resources concentrating on problems at home rather than abroad.

So let's practice a little democracy at home and give the people what they want: a Republican Party that is chastened by Iraq.

 
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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