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The Iraq Problem and McCain

Frank Rich is hardly an objective observer, and we shouldn’t believe everything he says. Nonetheless, he does well to remind us how hard the Iraq war will make it for McCain to win. It’s the main reason the president’s is very, very unpopular; 63% of Americans, more than ever before, now believe invading was a mistake. It seems to be the reason the Democrats seem poised to capture what seemed to be a very safe House seat in Mississippi--not a hotbed of McGovernism.

Let me call your attention to the observations made by our darling Kate a couple of threads below (a post on the Iraq War etc. by Joe): We may have had some fine reasons to invade Iraq, but, as some of our NLT interlocuters sometimes remind us, we have reasons to invade lots of countries. The big issue is that the invasion didn’t work out, and for that reason has hurt more than helped us. I’m not getting into any deep analysis here, except to say presidents (and their parties) who don’t win wars that were expected to be no big deal (and who prematurely gloat mission accomplished) pay the electoral price. It’s going to be very hard, I think, for Mac to make the case that the invasion was not only warranted but prudent, and the ONLY problem was incompetent execution. Nor can he really say that the surged has won the war or even moved us very close to some political solution.

Kate can’t think well of a decision to invade that may have wrecked her party in the short-term. Excessively ideological Republican thinking, she suspects, may give us really, really excessively ideological Democratic unified government. People are even connecting the out-of-control gas prices with the lack of respect we now get from the oil producing countries, and, rightly or wongly, they conclude we’re dissed because we haven’t prevailed on the battlefield--a battle we need not have waged.


The outcome of virtually every war involves a lot of luck. Every decision to wage war is to some extent a roll of the dice, unless it’s clearly the only alternative to total destruction of all that one loves. Lee, with either better strategy or better luck, could have won decisively at Antietam, and the case for Lincoln’s prudence today would be a lot, lot harder to make. So I’m not writing mainly to blame Bush for Republican woes, but just to say that the woes are real and pretty intractable.

Discussions - 13 Comments

Dear Professor Lawler,

All good points about how the war has hurt the Republicans, but perhaps a counterfactual. If the economy were growing at four percent, unemployment was holding steady at less than five percent, and gas prices were two dollars a gallon, would Iraq be such a millstone in 2008? Would the progress made in Iraq be so easily dismissed? In 2006, the war in Iraq was clearly being lost by the party in power. That was the most important factor in the election. From the polls I've seen, most voters view Iraq as a secondary or tertiary concern. Thats why the military and political progress in Iraq seems to have been discounted by much of the public. Even if we are winning (which is still a disputed point), the public has moved on to other matters. The new issues hurting the Republicans (rising unemployment, unheard of gas prices) are in the short run even more intractable than the Iraq war. No surge is going to bring down gas prices the way the Petraeus strategy brought down civillian deaths in Iraq and no economic reconcilliation is going prevent unemployment rates from rising in the months between now and the general election. Iraq is a problem, but McCain would be better off if it was his biggest problem.

Query: Given the general aimlessness and cluelessness of the Bush administration, how would Bush and the GOP have fared in 2004 if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq? Couldn't the case be made that the Iraq war prolonged the 9/11 effect through an additional election cycle, to the benefit of Bush and the Republicans? Please note, I am not suggesting that Bush made the decision to invade for crass political purposes.

Pete, You are right...

Perhaps. I think the discontent goes deeper than the Iraq war though. Loyal Republicans are not bailing just because of that. There is a general sense that the party is adrift, that it's become corrupt and unprincipled, that it's turned it's back on what it used to stand for. That it no longer cares what it's voters think. The only thing propping up the GOP at present is the two party system.

Figuring out how to replace that with something that offers the voters an actual choice is vital for the countries survival.

DJF, I disagree. Most of the " aimlessness and cluelessness of the Bush administration" manifested itself in the second term.

My wife's the perfect "squish centrist" and she was reflecting the other day on how she thought that Bush was a complete failure. I pointed out how that really wasn't the case, but I think that's a pretty common perception and it is one that McCain will find it tough to overcome. I think the only question now is whether the GOP can can keep 40 seats in the Senate and fend off the worst that an Obama administration will dish out.

Consider this. We are approaching a level of success in Iraq that cannot but undermine that 63% significantly by November. And do note that "invading was a mistake" and "abandoning the war once it was undertaken would not be a mistake" are two very different propositions.

What a pleasant surprise. I can't afford to write much here, but really can't resist, either.


Peter Lawler reads my comment somewhat correctly, except that I am really worried about the Republican Party long-term. The short-term does leave plenty of room for worry,too. This long election will end too soon for me if the public flip-flop of perception about the parties ends with the one that I read as national socialist in charge. I am uncomfortable that the public perception of the war and the Bush administration's handling of it (among other things, like those Pete mentions, matters of luck or not) are being tagged as conservative. How do we present conservative principles of good governance as the best option when the Republicans have been in charge, call themselves conservative, and seem (unluckily?) to make a hash of everything?

I didn't mention gas prices, which I would have connected to the devalued dollar and a lot of other things before I related it to "dissing" by "furriners" over Iraq.

"Loyal Republicans bailing" just seems so wrong.

DJF: NO. I would have to make the case that John Kerry was the best thing to happen to Bush in the '04 election. Even when Americans were upset about Iraq and all sorts of things, they were not so gullible as to vote for that Democrat.

I meander back to this: Every decision to wage war is to some extent a roll of the dice, unless it’s clearly the only alternative to total destruction of all that one loves. I really hope that this war turns out to have been a prudent decision and not just a roll of the dice. Wasn't that the point of Joe's post? If we turn out to have stopped the destruction of all that we love, somehow stop it dead by fighting in Iraq, that will be wonderful. Draining the Middle East swamp, as John Moser put it, so we will not all have to die of malaria (or the outrageous stings of Al Qaeda) won't seem so bad if it all works out, which it probably won't if we run and do not actually finish job.

Peter, you overestimated the role of luck in military affairs. Military professionalism and overwhelming power can redress a multiple of sins. Sure Antietam was a near run thing as Wellington might remark. But that was still one battle, and one battle is rarely decisive. The South said of Lee at Gettysburg that "the stars in their courses fought against him," implying that fortune played a role. And it did. But even if he won Gettysburg, would Lee have been able to dictate a brokered peace. That's debatable.

But consider now by contrast Rommel's comments about America's economic and military power, that once we turned our attention and applied ourselves on a particular theater, it was impossible to resist us. That paraphrase comes from Young's ROMMEL, THE DESERT FOX, which I reread the other night. Rommel's observation doesn't leave any room for the vagaries of chance, does it. He speaks as if he's referring to mathematic proofs, which admit no other conclusion. And Rommel knew what it was like to face us in North Africa, what it was like to feel America bearing down upon him, {his comment followed in the aftermath of him being drive from Africa}.

It's true that there are many variables in military affairs. That's clear. But read VDH's CARNAGE AND CULTURE, where he argues wars are verdicts on the respective merits of societies, and that military genius, even that of a Hannibal, can rarely erase the advantages held by Western powers. So sure, victory and defeat in isolated battles and particular campaigns can be a thing of chance. But chance rarely dictates the outcomes of an overall war effort. Here's a for instance. Try to describe the scenario by which Japan prevailed against the United States in World War II. Remember, we polished them off and never applied against them a major percentage of our overall economic and military power. Within six months their offensive power was broken, within 9 months we went on the offensive at Guadalcanal, and we never looked back thereafter. I think I saw a stat that said Japan got 15% of our overall war effort. So even if they won Midway, even if they won Guadalcanal, we were still going to grind them to dust. It was just a matter of time. But again, that's an overall war effort, and not individual battles or campaigns.

McCain has a choice regarding Bush. He can either sit with the accused, or he can sit with the prosecution. Sanity and savvy suggest that he sit with the prosecution.

But McCain has demonstrated a want of savvy on more than one occasion. So who knows what he'll do.

"Loyal Republicans bailing" just seems so wrong.


Wrong as in they are not doing it, or wrong as in they should not be doing it? Because I can tell you that they are doing it.

If we turn out to have stopped the destruction of all that we love, somehow stop it dead by fighting in Iraq


I never supported the war on that basis, since I don't believe those are the stakes. But you're right that the consequence of the war looks like it may be the death of conservatism. Followed, in due course, by the country.

Anyone here ever read MEChA's Constitution? You all need to stop fretting over the Arabs. The enemy is within the gates.

Wrong in that if you are bailing, as in bailing out, you are not loyal. Some are bailing, as in trying to get the water out of the boat so it does not capsize or sink. That's what the loyal would do.

And if bailing out, where do you bail to that gives a better chance of success to conservative principles?


Because of party loyalties, which McCain will have to develop to lead it, he can't really denounce Bush. He has to find something nice to say, or say nothing at all about the Bush presidency.

This is what John wants us to read. He's just trying to cheer us up.

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