“No one quite knows or will probably ever know the exact financial cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is interesting in itself. Some estimates put it at $1 trillion, some $2 trillion…. [NBC national affairs writer Tom] Curry cites a Congressional Budget Office report saying the Iraq operation had cost $767 billion as of January 2012. Whatever the number, it added to deficits and debt, and along with the Bush administration's domestic spending helped erode the Republican Party's reputation for sobriety in fiscal affairs.”— Peggy Noonan, “Can the Republican Party Recover From Iraq?” The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2013
You can read from here to eternity all the analyses of what ails the Republican Party. The general tone about its problems with Hispanics, gays, women, you name it—i.e., that the party has just sustained a huge gash in its well-heeled ocean liner, and that all aboard have spilled into the icy waters, where they’ll drown in the near future—sounds awfully familiar to me. I read similar obituaries about the GOP in 1977, after a shellacking over Watergate and an intraparty nomination slugfest left it without control of the White House and Congress. Come to think of it, I heard the same thing about them four years ago, before they assumed control of both houses of Congress. Much of the same wailing could be heard about the Democrats, in fact, in the 12 sorry years before Bill Clinton was elected.
Think of it another way: The party fielded a hapless candidate that New York Times columnist David Brooks rightly likened to Thurston Howell III of Gilligan’s Island, and it still polled 47% of the vote in the last Presidential campaign. A full-fledged economic or military disaster tagged to the Obama administration would put the Oops! (sorry, I mean Opposition) Party back in business.
But Peggy Noonan’s column, I think, is onto something important. Tones, even policies, on social issues can be adjusted. But the Iraq War delivered a body blow that the Republican Party, and the nation, could ill afford to sustain.
“Did the Iraq war hurt the GOP? Yes,” the former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan bluntly admits. “The war, and the crash of '08, half killed it. It's still digging out, and whether it can succeed is an open question.”
The damage to U.S. lives is, in comparison with other U.S. wars, not so steep: roughly 4,000 deaths, plus another 2,000 for Afghanistan. The two combined are roughly comparable to losses sustained in the Spanish-American War and the far less-well-known subsequent struggle to quash the Philippine independence movement. But they pale in comparison, both in absolute terms and as percentages of the total population, with deaths in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, Korea, Vietnam, WWI, WWII, and the Civil War.
But the cost in other ways is as bad as these other wars, perhaps even more so. Noonan’s column—which should be required reading at GOP headquarters—takes note of how the war affected perceptions of its foreign policy, the meaning of conservatism, the dominance that began with Reagan, dissent within the party, and the reputation of its Washington establishment.
But the fiscal damage caused by the war—the one alluded to in this quote--might be most insidious. Following the war, no Republican really had the right to complain about deficits caused by President Obama—they began on George W. Bush’s watch. More than a few longtime party members knew this, which is why, for instance, Noonan's normal criticism of Democrats was considerably more muted in the '08 Presidential campaign, and why Christopher Buckley, son of the founder of the modern conservative movement, came out and actually endorsed Obama. The rising tide of right-wing discontent about Dubya’s domestic spending would not have risen so sharply without war-worsened budget deficits. That energized the libertarian/Tea Party wing of the GOP, with consequences its Establishment members are still trying to contain.
The low-level civil war now occurring among Republicans nearly claimed a prominent victim a few weeks ago. For years, Chuck Hagel had a well-deserved reputation for fiscal and social conservatism, and had even supported President Bush’s invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. But his increasing criticism of the conduct of the war and those who supported it left him, in a real sense, as a man without a party. His onetime Senate friends on the Republican side of the aisle can't abide that he was right to question the disastrous military policy perpetrated by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, or that his disgust with the Iraq War was so complete that he refused to endorse old friend John McCain for Presidents. He begins his term as Secretary of Defense with neither bone-deep loyalty from Democrats nor good will from his former GOP colleagues.
There are other costs to the Iraq War, as we take stock this month 10 years after the Bush administration turned the War on Terror into a bridge too far:
*A more polarized electorate. Even as the GOP Establishment has been discredited and the Tea Party emboldened, the most socially liberal faction of the Democrats has taken firmer control on the other side of the partisan divide. Increasingly limited space exists for political centrists of either party, not to mention the spirit of compromise.
* A politicized intelligence unit. Dick Cheney conclusively demonstrated how easy it was to shift intelligence estimates toward the conclusions that one highly influential administration official wished to draw. It is a foregone conclusion that the citizens of other nations, already ambivalent (or worse) about America, might recoil from any suggestion that we might be facing a mortal threat. Now, U.S. citizens, remembering those phantom WMDs, are likely to do so, too, even if the suggestion comes from a Democratic President.
* Strengthened isolationism. Reluctance to use military force is a good thing, but now that they are back in power, the Democrats are facing increasing pressures against using non-military means as well. At this point, foreign aid is squarely in the sight of budget-cutters. Now, it is China that is in a better position to use its financial resources to further geopolitical aims. Rest assured that those aims will not be for humanitarian purposes. And that brings us to the biggest victims of all in the Iraq War…
*The Iraqis themselves. Now, after a decade of death, dysfunction and division, they face their future—though the word “they” must be highly qualified in a country now experiencing the ethnic cleansing of Christians and other minorities by Islamic militants, harassment and worse against women’s rights activists, and a government still all too internally fractious.
God help the Iraqis—because, courtesy of a former Republican administration and its then-compliant, now-confused, Iraq-wrecked allies in the legislative branch--the United States is no longer of a mind to do so again anytime soon.