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Remember Iraq?

The U.S. public has moved on, but it is still a troubled country.

The aftermath of a bombing in Iraq

An Iraqi man looks at a car destroyed by a bomb in Baghdad's Sadr City on April 23 (Getty Images)

If you went abroad a few weeks ago, and upon returning today were told that in your absence a debate swirled throughout in the media over the enduring, if diminished, political salience of America’s last major war, which conflict would you assume they were discussing? If you guessed the Iraq invasion, you’d be wrong. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s misrepresentation of his service in the Vietnam era created a career-threatening brouhaha, but Vice President Joe Biden’s statement to The Washington Post that the administration intends to complete its planned troop reduction from a current 90,000 in Iraq to 50,000 this summer is just another day in Washington.

It’s worth pausing to remember that in every election since September 11 the War in Iraq has been the single most divisive issue. Why did the GOP gain seats in 2002? Bush was marshalling support for the Iraq War and Democrats were on the defensive, internally divided over whether to support it. 

In 2004, how did Bush win re-election despite disapproval ratings north of 50 percent? He argued that his constancy on Iraq was preferable to Sen. John Kerry’s waffling. Kerry, for his part, emerged from a Democratic nominating contest that revolved almost exclusively around Iraq. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came roaring out of obscurity to the top of the national polls on the strength of his full throated opposition to the invasion; Gen. Wesley Clark was pushed into the race as the electable anti-war alternative; and Kerry ultimately prevailed on the argument that an experienced senator and Vietnam War veteran such as himself was the Democrats’ best hope of winning the national security debate. Despite his considerable political weaknesses—a stiff patrician bearing and a tendency to talk even his intended punch lines to death—the rage of the anti-war left powered record turnout and fundraising and brought Kerry to within a 60,000 vote swing in Ohio of the Oval Office.

In the last two elections dissatisfaction over the Bush administration’s mishandling of the Iraq occupation, if not the initial decision to invade, has been a majority position and it has redounded to the Democrats’ benefit, helping them retake Congress and the White House. It also rent asunder Joe Lieberman’s relationship with the party that had nominated him for vice president only six years earlier. 

Throughout the last decade Iraq was not just the main political issue at the polls, it dominated intellectual debate across the spectrum. Liberal hawks like Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute, Peter Beinart, then-editor of The New Republic and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times issued treatises arguing that the Iraq War was not only right in and of itself but the epitome of a liberal foreign policy that confronts evil dictators and spreads democracy. Their critics on the left, such as Michael Moore, Bob Herbert of The Times, and the folks at The Nation magazine, called them sellouts to Beltway groupthink, chicken hawks experimenting with soldiers lives, and Democrats in Name Only. 

While dissatisfaction on the right was initially more muted, Iraq eventually exposed sharp divisions between realists of the Colin Powell/Brent Scowcroft Republican establishment and the neoconservatives who have taken over their party’s foreign policy agenda. By 2008, Iraq was no less central, but the dynamic had reversed: Democrats were now united in their support for withdrawal as Republicans had once been united in their support for the occupation. And Republicans were divided, with anti-war Rep. Ron Paul gaining surprising traction for his isolationist views in their primaries. 

And remember Sarah Palin’s first big interview screw up, when Charles Gibson asked her to assess the Bush Doctrine and she did not know what it was? That doctrine, that the U.S. has the right to unilaterally invade countries it believes pose a threat, was crafted to justify Iraq. 

So, now here we are, with an administration that is in step with the public’s view on Iraq (phased withdrawal), and the issue seems to have vanished. Everyone knows that conflict makes for good stories, and if Republicans don’t see their next political opportunity in attacking withdrawal then you can assume it will continue to be ignored in favor of the Gulf oil spill, economic uncertainty, and the previous forgotten war, Afghanistan. 

But just because we are withdrawing troops, in part to send them over to Afghanistan, that Iraq should no longer trouble us. Three months after close national elections, Iraq’s various factions have been unable to form a coalition government. Sectarian violence continues, and international crime, including, of all things, the trade in rare animals that are usually unsuitable as pets, such as tigers, flourishes. 

By the same token, just because Iraq suffers from problems that can still be attributed to our initial decision to invade doesn’t mean that we should not continue with the plan to withdraw. Iraq War opponents have long contended that the U.S. presence is an irritant rather than a bandage on Iraq’s war wounds, and they may be right. But they were also skeptical of the surge that helped finally bring a modicum of stability to the country.

Just because there is no longer an election at stake over Iraq, the right course for us there is still a debate worth having.

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