Iraq dredges up painful memories for GOP

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For Republicans still smarting from the Bush years, this week’s Iraq deja vu brought back painful memories. 

Amid the renewed chaos in the country, key figures from George W. Bush’s administration have reemerged in the public spotlight, bringing fresh attention to past mistakes the GOP would rather forget.  

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Now, as Republicans eye a Senate majority in an increasingly favorable political climate, Republican strategists say it would be better if the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq stayed off television.

“Whenever the conversation is on Iraq, it’s not good news for Republicans,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide. “That’s not helped at all over the last week by a bunch of people who we hadn’t heard from in several years — Republican figures associated with Iraq from the Bush administration — who were suddenly back on major shows discussing the current state of affairs in Iraq.

 “It was not a helpful reminder,” he added. “They probably should have stayed off the shows.”

Democrats gleefully welcomed back former Vice President Dick Cheney to the national conversation. They pounced on their familiar punching bag after he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal slamming Obama’s Iraq policy as a failure and claiming, “rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of many.” 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Cheney “the chief architect of the war” on the Senate floor and declared, “if there is one thing this country does not need, it’s that we should be taking advice from Dick Cheney on wars.

“To the architects of the Iraq war who are now so eager to offer their expert analysis, I say… thanks but no thanks,”  Reid added.   

Cheney also faced some hostile questioning from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

 “[T]ime and time again, history has proven that you got it wrong as well, sir,” she told him in a pointed response to his op-ed.   

Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said there is a risk that the GOP hawks in will come to define the party’s image at a time when the public does not support greater involvement in Iraq.

“The fact that [Cheney] came out swinging the other day is disappointing to some Republicans because it does nothing but encourage people to remember that this was Bush’s war,” he said of the controversial former vice president’s recent public statements. 

“So they do risk putting themselves into a position where on one of the few salient issues of the day they’re not on the right side,” he said of the GOP.

It wasn’t just Cheney making the television rounds, but other key players current party strategists would rather forget about. 

Paul Bremer, who oversaw the reconstruction of Iraq starting in 2003 as Bush’s envoy, and Paul Wolfowitz, who served as Bush’s deputy defense secretary, received hostile grillings in two recent television interviews.

"A lot of people are watching you right now and they're —they're hearing you give your ideas of what to do. And they're saying, 'but aren't you the guy who got us in this mess?'" CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Bremer. 

Bremer disputed Burnett’s sour view of Bush’s legacy in Iraq, arguing it now has the Arab world’s most progressive constitution and has conducted six democratic elections since the U.S. invasion.

CNN host Chris Cuomo called Wolfowitz the “architect” of the war in another interview and said it was unfair for Republicans to blame President Obama for problems in Iraq because Bush made the decision to invade.

But it’s renewed interest in Cheney that could be the most consequential. His daughter was briefly a Senate candidate this year and he’s fundraised for and endorsed candidates, but Republicans are split over whether he reflects well on the GOP because of his close association with the decision to invade Iraq.

“I think there’s a real divided opinion about Vice President Cheney,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide. “In part of the party he’s deeply respected as a serious voice on national security and foreign policy, but there’s also a realization that Iraq was a mess and it cost more than we thought it would. 

“It was much tougher than we thought it would be and it didn’t end up as well as we thought it might,” he added.

GOP strategists say Obama has shown weak leadership in response to threat posed by extremist Sunni militants in Iraq but caution the issue is not a political winner for Republicans.

Mackowiak said the Iraq war is “generally” a problem for their side.

“I don’t think Iraq is helpful to the Republican Party. I don’t think that issue is,” he said. “It’s now an issue that’s both not good for Republicans and not good for Democrats.” 

For this reason, most Republicans have been wary about criticizing Obama’s cautious response to the string of military victories won by extremist Sunni militants formerly affiliated with al Qaeda.

A handful of Senate Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), however, have framed the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a serious national security threat. They have called for an aggressive military response short of putting a large contingent of U.S. troops back in Iraq.

But for the most part, GOP lawmakers have hesitated to lay out their own detailed roadmap, instead putting the onus on the president.

“What raises the concerns most is putting more American troops into Iraq and if the situation continues to deteriorate, the question is what will Obama do next? Most Republicans are rallying around Speaker [John] Boehner’s [R-Ohio] call for Obama to present a comprehensive Iraq strategy," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Senate and House leadership aide.