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A.B. Stoddard: Iraq, then and now

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Wanted: Republicans willing to step up and explain just how we are going to face down the threat of new terrorist groups and non-state actors trying to take over sovereign countries in the Middle East, now or when President Obama has left office. 

In a wrenching debate over the deterioration in Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), not surprisingly, has called for airstrikes. But he isn’t running for president again. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) agreed with Obama’s decision not to send ground forces, only to be called “isolationist” by former Vice President Dick Cheney. 

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Even amid some regret among conservatives, there isn’t much leadership to be found for a crisis we will be managing for years to come.

After insurgents began to claim large swaths of territory in Iraq last week, conservative fire-breather and radio talk show host Glenn Beck declared that liberals had been right all along on our role in Iraq. They may or may not have been, but such a reversal was stunning. 

Conservative columnist George Will, a supporter of the war in Iraq at the onset, wrote that Republicans, now criticizing Obama’s foreign policy throughout the Middle East, have a foreign policy problem of their own. He posited that Republican presidential hopefuls — knowing now that there were no weapons of mass destruction, how little we know about nation building, how at least Saddam Hussein’s rule contained “sectarian furies,” how under Hussein Iraq was Iran’s adversary and that a 10-year war would make Americans “indiscriminately averse to military undertakings” — should ask themselves, “If you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?”

And in a slap at the policies of former President George W. Bush, whom most Republicans no longer support, Will wrote the GOP must choose between Obama’s retreat and the “ruinous grandiosity of the ‘freedom agenda’ of Obama’s predecessor.”

Cheney has no problem advocating his past policies that are outdated or were proven wrong and gratuitously excoriating Obama, whom he declared in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week “seems determined to leave office ensuring he has taken America down a notch.” When asked about his own mistakes in Iraq, Cheney has a handy and hypocritical excuse: that we need to focus on the present instead of the past. He told ABC News: “If we spend time debating what happened 11 or 12 years ago, we’re going to miss the threat that is growing and that we do face.”

Cheney at least admits he wants boots on the ground back in Iraq, while other partisans rely on diagnoses without prescriptions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Obama of “inflexibly clinging” to his campaign promises to end the war in Iraq and added that “the president has weakened the national security posture of the United States.” But McConnell didn’t present any new ideas and — no surprise — didn’t call for ground troops.

The Iraq debate makes the bitter one over ObamaCare these last few years seem rather quaint. The reasons are life and death, and the many thousands of Americans we have lost in a fight that neither side believes was worth it. With a majority of the country having concluded the war wasn’t worth it, and now opposing the use of ground troops, President Obama’s policies are representing the interest of the nation. If those policies are wrong and will endanger our security, some Republican — or many of them — should stand up and say just what failed in Iraq last time and what must be done about it now. Especially those who think they can be elected president in two years.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.