When presidential candidate Jeb Bush (R) flubbed the question on Iraq — "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?" — the media were all over it. Not so with rival John Kasich (R), who told CBS News on Sunday that "I would never have committed" to Iraq, neglecting to mention that he supported it at the time. There has been remarkably little press coverage of this inconsistency.
With the Iran nuclear deal and repeated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks on the front burner, the Iraq question has slipped somewhat from public view. But the "knowing what you know now" question is important for two reasons. First, it is a question of personal character: Are you willing to admit it when you make an error in judgment? And second, it is a test of national leadership: Are you capable of recognizing when U.S. foreign policy goes off the rails?
Kasich, Ohio's governor, failed on the first count; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) — who voted for the war and recently "doubled down" on it, as Bloomberg notes — and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) on the second. But rather than pressing the candidates on this issue, the Democrats, the media and the public have allowed Republicans to switch the question. Instead of debating whether it made sense to invade Iraq, we're now arguing about whether it made sense to leave.
One might think that the new framing would put Republicans onto equally dangerous political footing, since it was President George W. Bush who started the withdrawal process. Would Republican candidates have left U.S. troops in, absent an agreement that provided for their legal immunity? Are they suggesting that continued occupation would have enticed or intimidated Iraq into providing that immunity, or into achieving political reconciliation — which not even the rise of ISIS has precipitated?
What Republicans seem incapable of admitting is that there are, in fact, limits on America's ability to impose its will on the rest of the world. It's not that we lack military strength or the political resolve to use it effectively. As Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein himself demonstrated so clearly, a state can use brutality, ruthlessness and fear to enforce its rule — but those doesn't make grievances go away. They simply fester and wait for the right moment to explode.
Like the GOP's other inconvenient truths, it's easier for candidates to deny the problem than to admit that there is no easy solution. Iraq was not a failure because we were misled about Hussein's role in 9/11 or his possession of weapons of mass destruction. It was not a failure because we sent too few troops or left too early. It was a failure because the entire premise on which it was based — that we could coerce a country through shock and awe into behaving responsibly — was fundamentally flawed.
The doctrine of armed interventionism, metastasized in the wake of the Cold War, is not making us more secure. Military subjugation, incursions, drone strikes and targeted killings are fueling the very threats they were intended to defeat. In an interdependent and interconnected world, where high-tech can be easily defeated by low-tech and unthinkable carnage can be unleashed by a lone individual, we must fundamentally rethink the sources of U.S. power and influence.
It is unreasonable to expect a candidate, or anyone else for that matter, to be right on every issue and never change his or her mind. We should, however, expect presidential hopefuls — Democrats and Republicans alike — to acknowledge failure, apologize for mistakes, take responsibility for the consequences and explain in some detail how they would approach things differently in the future.
Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Project on Prosperity and Development, and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.