How Conservatives Betrayed Their Principles in the Iraq War

The end of the costly U.S. effort in Iraq reminds us how easily many prominent, self-described conservative pundits and politicians shed their conservative principles when it comes to war.

12.19.11 9:45 AM ET

With America’s long, awful misadventure in Iraq finally ending, I think you can sum up the lessons of the war in one phrase: the conservatives were right.

By conservatives, I emphatically don’t mean George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their boosters in the press. I mean the people who actually saw the war through a conservative—as opposed to jingoistic and imperialistic—lens.

What, after all, did our experience in Iraq teach? First, that government is dumb. When it became clear that the Bush administration had gone to war without any clue how to manage Iraq once Saddam Hussein fell, lots of folks in Washington began arguing that the war had been a good idea, badly managed. For pro-war liberals, the problem was explaining why they ever believed that George W. Bush—who they mostly considered an idiot—could manage a war in the first place.

But for self-described “conservatives,” the problem was deeper. Liberals may have considered Bush dumb, but conservatives consider all government dumb. At the core of modern conservatism is the belief that society is too complex for remote bureaucrats to micromanage, and that when government planners try to remake society based on the visions in their heads, they usually make things worse. Most American conservatives don’t believe the United States government is smart enough to effectively deliver the mail. How, then, could a true conservative possibly trust that same government to build stable, liberal, democratic, pro-American institutions in a country as alien as Iraq?

The absence of this conservative critique was deafening in the run-up to the war. It did not come naturally to liberals, who as a breed are more optimistic about government’s ability to remake society. The fundamental conservative insight, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, is that culture matters more than politics. The fundamental liberal insight is that politics can change culture. Given this general orientation, liberals found it uncomfortable to argue that invading Iraq was a bad idea because Iraq was incapable of the kind of government America was trying to install. Instead, liberals fell back on their natural vocabulary: the vocabulary of international cooperation and nonviolence.

The problem of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, they argued, should be handled peacefully through the United Nations. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when Americans were easily scared, those arguments were dismissed as naive. The conservative anti-war argument—that America had every right to overthrow Saddam but that occupying and remaking a country like Iraq was simply beyond government’s capacity—might have gained more traction. But with the exception of Brent Scowcroft, few prominent conservatives made it.

Another conservative truth that Iraq has taught is that war expands government, which infringes on personal liberty, produces debt, and, sooner or later, leads to higher taxes. Today’s conservatives are apoplectic about the increased size of government, but part of that increase stems from the same Iraq War they championed. When you factor in the massive health-care costs of treating the thousands of physically wounded and mentally scarred Iraq veterans—costs America will be paying for decades to come—one can begin to understand why economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes predict the war will ultimately cost $3 trillion.

Conservatives should have been worried about this from the beginning. And yet many of the same conservatives who consider government a money sieve when it comes to domestic programs, convinced themselves that the Iraq War would be cheap.

There are several reasons that the conservative case against the Iraq War never emerged. By 2002, America’s military successes in Panama, the Gulf War, and the Balkans had made conservatives more optimistic about the U.S. government’s ability to manage wars, and the post–Cold War spread of democracy had made them less pessimistic about democracy’s chances in the Middle East. The Bush administration also made it clear that Washington conservatives who opposed the war would pay a price, and so conservatives who knew better swallowed qualms.

But even today, almost a decade later, it is striking how easily prominent conservative pundits and politicians shed their conservative principles when it comes to war. With one breath, the Republican presidential candidates call Obama hubristic for believing he can increase government’s role in health care and in the next they criticize him for limiting America’s counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. In one breath they declare the United States bankrupt, and in the next they suggest that we attack Iran.

I disagree with Ron Paul about lots of things, but he’s the only major Republican candidate (depending on how one classifies Jon Huntsman) who doesn’t abandon his conservative skepticism of government when the debate migrates from domestic policy to war. Largely for that reason, he’s persona non grata among conservatives in Washington. Wouldn’t it be lovely if he won the Iowa caucuses and proved that out there in the country, conservatives have actually learned something from the Iraq War?