On Monday, presidential hopeful Rand Paul had this to say to a group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn: "All the way back to the Iraq War, I think it was a mistake to topple [Saddam] Hussein." The Kentucky senator continued:
Hussein was the bulwark against Iran. The Sunnis didn't like the Shiites, now Iraq is a vassal state for Iran. I'm worried [Iran] is twice as strong as it was before the Iraq War. [Rand Paul]
I'm no dove. But I must admit: Rand Paul has a point.
Now, there are caveats. Here in 2015, Paul has the immense benefit of hindsight. He knows what worked and what didn't. And yes, knowing what we know now (that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, that years of chaos followed the war), it's pretty easy to argue that the invasion was a mistake. But we didn't know these things then — at least not with the clarity and certainty that we have now.
There are also an infinite number of ways that toppling Saddam could have been a success instead of a failure. What would have happened if, instead of waiting for the surge, George W. Bush had sent in more troops from the beginning, and had followed the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by General Petraeus in 2007? Or what if President Obama had left 10,000 residual troops behind? And on and on.
Still, caveats aside, I think most of us can concede that in hindsight, the Iraq invasion was a mistake on its stated merits. After all, the supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that formed the rationale for war turned out to be non-existent. But that wouldn't necessarily mean that the war itself was a mistake. Maybe we went to war for the wrong reasons but achieved the right results.
But Paul is actually saying little to nothing about why we went to war. He's effectively saying that irrespective of the reasons we went to war, we achieved the wrong results. Indeed, the man who wants to lead the GOP says the last GOP administration engaged in a foreign policy blunder that weakened one American enemy only to strengthen another. And we're much worse off as a result.
There's no doubt Saddam Hussein was a horrible person. But it's hard to say the world is a safer place with him gone. It seems very difficult to deny Paul's contention that Iran is much stronger with Saddam out of the picture, and that, indeed, Iraq is essentially under the influence of Iran.
Saddam's Iraq was strong in the region and exerted outsized influence globally. He provided a check on Iran's power. With the post-invasion Iraq a borderline failed state, Iran has been free to flex its muscles virtually unchecked by regional opponents.
Republicans have a hard time admitting this. To suggest that the Iraq war was a mistake is to suggest that the last Republican president made an epic error, and that the defining decision of his presidency was wrong. That wrongness is not just some academic question — it cost this nation, Iraq, and many allies untold amounts of life and money. It also makes it hard for the GOP to ding Obama for going soft on Iran if George W. Bush is on the hook for inadvertently strengthening Iran in the first place.
It all adds up to one big problem: Owning the failure of the Iraq war robs the GOP of one of its core strengths, its self-claimed image as the "daddy party" that is best positioned to protect this nation.
What Paul said about Iraq takes guts. There are surely plenty of Republicans across the country who privately agree with him. But there are many more — and not just Bush-era neocons — who will never cop to this publicly.
Regardless of whether Paul's 2016 opponents follow his lead, I hope they at least internalize the right lessons for the future.
The wrong lesson of Iraq would be to retreat inward and allow the world to fall into chaos. The right lesson would be to understand that nation-building is utopian and quixotic. It is absurd to suppose we can impose our Western values (the ones it took us centuries to develop) on a foreign culture, and expect them to turn into good little Americans. This is a fatal conceit.
What has the Iraq war gotten us? Thousands of dead bodies. Trillions of lost dollars. ISIS. A tarnished reputation around the globe. An Iraq on the brink of chaos. A gun-shy America. An emboldened Iran.
Was it was really worth it?