When President George W. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq, there was no way to know the lasting ramifications of his choice. But a decade later, it's clear that the conflict not only transformed his own political party, but all of American politics.
Republicans found their edge on national security matters eroded, laying the groundwork for President Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House. The Iraq War, which was waged for nearly nine years, changed Washington by empowering the Democrats to take on the role of the party of counter-terrorism and defense.
On the night of March 17, 2003, in a nationally televised speech, Bush said he was giving Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave their country or else face an American invasion.
Saddam had “harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda,” Bush said. “The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country, or any other.”
To the Iraqi people, Bush pledged, “The day of your liberation is near.”
Two nights later Bush was back on the air at 10:16 p.m., telling the American people that the invasion had begun. But he warned that the campaign “on the harsh terrain” of Iraq “could be longer and more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.”
Ten years later, Bush’s warning has a haunting resonance for Americans, perhaps especially for those in his own party.
Preemptive invasions and wars of national liberation have gone out of favor with Americans, including many members of Bush’s party. Some of the disenchantment is due to the cost of Iraq operations which, as of Jan. 2012, the Congressional Budget Office estimated to be $767 billion.
Edge over Democrats destroyed
A new generation of House Republicans, many of them elected after Bush left office in 2009, has voted for spending cuts – even in the face of warnings that they will hurt Pentagon operations. The post-Bush Republicans put debt reduction ahead of overseas engagement.
They’re wary of any “sustained commitment” of the kind that Bush called for in 2003. Some, led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, are fearful of the concentration of power in the presidency that the Iraq War and the war against al Qaeda have brought about.
In the 2004 campaign, Bush conflated the danger of Saddam Hussein with the danger of terrorist attacks on the United States. Exit poll data from the 2004 election showed that more than seven out of 10 voters were worried that there would be another major terrorist attack in the United States. Of that group, Bush won 53 percent, while Democratic opponent John Kerry won 46 percent.
Fifty-five percent of voters in 2004 considered the war in Iraq to be part of the war on terrorism, and of that group, four out five voted for Bush.
Bush had an 18-point advantage over Kerry on the question of whom voters trusted to deal with terrorism.
By 2006, the cost of the Iraq insurgency had destroyed whatever illusion of post-9/11 Republican electoral ascendancy there may have been. Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru said last week at a debate at the American Enterprise Institute on the future of the Republican Party, “You could make the argument that the beginning of the end of Republican dominance in Washington was the Iraq War, at least a stage of the Iraq War, 2005-2006.”
The outcome of the 2006 midterm elections was a disaster for Bush’s party, as Republicans lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate, losing control of both chambers.
The exit polls from the 2008 and 2012 elections showed how thoroughly the Iraq War had destroyed the GOP edge over the Democrats on national security and foreign policy.
In 2008, more than three out of five voters disapproved of the Iraq War. Although 2008 Republican candidate Sen. John McCain was critical of Bush’s conduct of the war and especially of Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, McCain was identified with the war and was the foremost proponent of the Iraq troop surge in 2006. His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, won 76 percent of those who disapproved of the Iraq War.
In the 2012 exit poll, of the relatively small group of the voters – only 5 percent – who chose foreign policy as the most important issue facing the country, 56 percent voted for Obama and only 33 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.
When asked who they’d trust to handle an international crisis, 42 percent said Obama, 36 chose Romney and 13 percent said both.
By losing the 2008 and 2012 elections, Republicans in effect handed responsibility for national security to a Democratic president for eight years, giving Obama the chance to show that a Democratic commander-in-chief can be just as or even more assertive than Bush was in using drones to kill suspected terrorists. Having Obama in charge means that it’s now a Democratic president who invokes the White House's inherent constitutional authority to wage war, with minimal consultation from Congress. Whether Democratic presidential contenders in 2016 will continue this robust assertion of presidential war-making power is unclear.
In the wake of the GOP defeats in 2008 and 2012, the party is defined at least partly by Rand Paul, whose father Ron was one of only six Republican House members to vote against the Oct. 10, 2002 authorization to use military force against Iraq.
Former Bush administration official Peter Wehner, who described himself as part of the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, said at the AEI debate last week that there is a concern in his wing of the GOP about “a kind of war weariness because of Iraq and Afghanistan … and I think Rand Paul tapped into it in a very creative and politically intelligent manner” with his filibuster against the possibility of Obama using drones to kill American citizens who may be terror suspects in the United States.
Paul also rails against U.S. aid to Egypt, where anti-American protests have taken place.
Wehner said he disagrees with Paul’s foreign policy views, but predicted a spirited intra-party debate over U.S. role in the world. “It may up being an acrimonious one because I think there are a lot people – including sort of traditional conservatives and a lot of people on talk radio – who had been strong supporters of President Bush and the Iraq war and the effort in Afghanistan – who spoke quite favorably about Rand Paul. I think that symbolized a kind of shift in thinking.”
Joining that debate the morning after Paul’s filibuster was McCain. Paul’s speculation about Obama using drones in the United States had “done a disservice to a lot of Americans by making them believe that somehow they are in danger from their government,” McCain said. “They are not. But we are in danger from a dedicated, longstanding, easily replaceable leadership enemy that is hell-bent on our destruction….”
Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, potential 2016 Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida warned that Americans “need to engage in the world…. We can't be involved in every armed conflict. But we also can't be retreating from the world….”
A divided party might have a hard time winning the next election. But divided as Republicans are now, so Democrats were at the height of the Bush era, and yet they won the 2008 election.
The weekend before American troops invaded Iraq, Kerry, then a contender for the 2004 Democratic nomination, faced a heckling reception from some of the activists at the California Democratic Party’s convention in Sacramento as he tried to minimize the importance of his vote for the resolution authorizing Bush to attack Iraq.
“It’s disappointing to me that he gave President Bush preemptive war power without really having it be an issue,” said one of the Democrats heckling Kerry, Tim Steed, who was then 22 and chairman of the Orange County Young Democrats, who supported Kerry’s rival Howard Dean. Iraq “is a very divisive issue for our party and that is a shame,” Steed said.