Syndicated columnist Byron York: Twenty years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq
It's been two decades since, on March 19, 2003, United States forces invaded Iraq. President George W. Bush ordered the invasion to neutralize what he said was the threat of weapons of mass destruction posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Except it turned out Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction. U.S. forces searched and searched and searched, and never found them. In all, 4,586 American servicemen and women died in the war, and 32,455 were wounded.
It was the largest military and national security blunder of anyone's lifetime, a mistake so enormous it beggared belief. In the years after, Bush wrote in his memoir, just thinking about it made him sick. "I knew the failure to find WMD would transform public perception of the war," Bush wrote. "While the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone, the reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false. That was a massive blow to our credibility -- my credibility -- that would shake the confidence of the American people. No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do."
Bush had spent months before the invasion making the case that Saddam had weapons. He passed two big milestones in that effort. The first came in October 2002, when the House and Senate voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. The House vote was 296 to 133 in favor of the war. Republicans were nearly unanimously in favor of the war sought by a GOP president: 215 voted in favor, with just six opposed. On the Democratic side, 81 Democrats voted with Bush, while 126 voted against.
In the Senate, the vote was 77 to 23 in favor of authorizing the war. The Senate at that time had 49 Republicans; 48 of them voted for the war, with just one voting against it. (The one was Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who in 2006 lost his bid for reelection and later became a Democrat.) Of Democrats, 29 voted in favor, while 21 voted against. Bush had substantial majorities in Congress. But still, there was by no means unanimity in support of what was a war of choice.
The other milestone in Bush's effort was Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations, in which Powell powerfully made the case for war. It turned out that some of the evidence he presented was, unbeknownst to him, false. Powell was later mortified to learn the truth. "I feel terrible," he said in 2005. Giving the speech, Powell said, was a "blot" on his record in government. "I'm the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record," Powell added. "It was painful. It's painful now."
Making a mistake of such immense proportions was not a politically survivable event, and by his final months in office, with the war widely seen as a failure, Bush's job approval rating sank to 25% in the Gallup poll. (It didn't help that Bush also oversaw an economic meltdown at the end of his term, cementing the image of a failed presidency.)
The aftereffects have rippled through U.S. politics ever since. They were a factor in Democratic presidential primaries in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry defended his vote for the war to a skeptical party base; in 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama benefited from not having been in the Senate in 2002, and thus did not have to vote on the issue; and 2016, when former Sen. Hillary Clinton, like Kerry, defended her vote for the war. By 2020, when former Sen. Joe Biden ran -- having voted for the war 18 years earlier -- it was not the issue it had been earlier.
Republicans in presidential politics remained hawkish in 2004, when Bush won reelection in part because Americans did not want to change commanders-in-chief during wartime; in 2008, when the very hawkish Sen. John McCain ran; and in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the party nominee. All defended the war.
That changed with Donald Trump in 2016, when his unorthodox candidacy invited many Republican voters to reassess their feelings about the war. Trump relished attacking rival candidate Jeb Bush, who was a former governor of Florida but, more important for Trump, was the brother of George W. Bush. Trump repeatedly called the Iraq War a disaster -- "a big, fat mistake" -- and got away with it. By 2016, criticizing the Iraq War was no longer a third rail of Republican politics.
In February 2016, just before the South Carolina GOP primary, George W. Bush traveled to North Charleston to speak at a rally for Jeb. It was not long after the Republican debate in which Trump had gone after Jeb and W, and the war, particularly aggressively. Mingling in the crowd, I asked about 40 people -- all W fans, not as many Jeb fans -- whether, looking back, they thought the war was a mistake. They divided about half and half between those who said yes, it was a mistake, and those who said it was worthwhile, although the years had made several of them more ambivalent about it. All were Republicans who supported the war in 2002, 2003 and beyond. Things were changing among GOP voters.
Now, a new poll from Ipsos and Axios asked all Americans, not just Republicans, a few simple questions about the war. Starting with this: "Do you agree or disagree with this statement: The United States was right to invade Iraq in 2003." Thirty-six percent agreed, either strongly or somewhat, while 61% disagreed -- a nearly 2-to-1 margin now saying the U.S. was wrong to invade Iraq.
Another question: "When it comes to the Iraq War, who do you think ultimately turned out to be right? People who totally supported the war? People who supported the war initially, but eventually opposed it as circumstances changed? People who opposed the war from the start? Or don't know?" Just 9% said that people who totally supported the war turned out to be right. Twenty-one percent said people who supported it initially but came to oppose it were right; 26% said people who opposed it from the start were right; and 44% did not know.
A third question: "Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: The Iraq War has made America safer." A minority, 31%, agreed, and 67% disagreed -- a more than 2-to-1 margin who believe the war did not make America safer. That was, of course, the ultimate reason war proponents gave for invading Iraq at the time.
During the run-up to the Iraq War, and during the war itself, some in the Bush administration, and especially some of the most vociferous supporters outside the White House, attacked those who asked questions about the war. Democratic lawmakers complained that the Bush administration was not being transparent on the war's cost. They asked questions about the intelligence. They were skeptical about claims of progress. That led to some pretty heated rhetoric on both sides. It was common to hear critics of the war say that Bush supporters were questioning their patriotism, especially after the false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction became central to the argument.
Most of the time, White House supporters did not directly call opponents "unpatriotic" -- although some did -- but more often said the critics' words undermined the American cause in Iraq and gave aid and comfort to the enemy. When, in 2005, a Democratic member of the House, John Murtha, called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, supporters of the war went after him hard -- so hard that Bush himself later had to renounce some on his own side. "I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me," Bush said in 2006. "This has nothing to do with patriotism."
Now, 20 years on, public opinion on the war has changed dramatically. In light of a far different public mood, even some of its most aggressive defenders have confessed that they got things terribly wrong. "In retrospect, I was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects of exporting democracy by force, underestimating both the difficulties and the costs of such a massive undertaking," advocate Max Boot wrote recently.
In the years after the invasion, some of the war's most outspoken defenders, Boot included, went on to become virulently anti-Trump and to leave the Republican Party. Now they are supporting President Joe Biden and advocating greater U.S. military aid to Ukraine, even greater than the massive amount of aid the U.S. has already sent to Ukraine after the Russian invasion. It's a different war in a different time, and thankfully no American troops are fighting in Ukraine. Still, some are attacking critics of aid to Ukraine, or even those who just want to limit the aid, as pro-Putin, much the way some criticized skeptics of the Iraq War as soft on terrorism or even anti-American. Indeed, some of the very same people who promoted the Iraq War and attacked the war's critics are promoting U.S. aid to Ukraine and attacking critics of that aid.
Finally, the Senate is preparing to repeal the 20-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq -- the vote that played such an important role in many political careers and in the general Iraq debate. Doing so now is a practically useless exercise, but it would mark an important point in the long conflict over the war in Iraq -- even as echoes of that war are heard in the debate about Ukraine.
© 2023, Universal