In an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd today, Mitt Romney asserts that “of course” invading Iraq was a bad idea now that we know Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. (“If we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction, if somehow we had been given that information, obviously we would not have gone in.”) Four years ago, Romney said just the opposite. (“It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now.”)
I can’t think of any important substantive facts that have changed between now and then that would lead Romney to alter his opinion. Indeed, Iraq is probably more stable than it was, and it’s now easier to justify invading on non-WMD grounds than it was before.
What’s changed is that Iraq is no longer so central to the Republican id. Four years ago, a Republican had to defend the Iraq war in order to defend George W. Bush. To conclude that the invasion was a mistake would be to indict Bush of a massive blunder, to subvert the commander of the War on Terror, to give in to the liberals. The importance of the issue has now receded to the point where Romney can casually take the completely opposite position without antagonizing any significant part of his coalition.
The thing I’ve always found endearing and (to some degree) comforting about Mitt Romney is that his flip-flops betray pure contempt for the Republican base. He treats them like angry children, and their pet issues as emotionally driven symbols of cultural division rather than as serious positions. Four years ago, conservatives were enraged that liberals would question Bush’s handling of foreign policy, so Romney was defending the decision to go to war and promising to "double Guantanamo." (It made zero sense as a policy position and could be understood only as an expression of culture-war solidarity.) Likewise, conservatives are now outraged over Obamacare, so Romney promises to repeal Obamacare.
Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement. Of course, none of this tells us the really crucial thing, which is what promises Romney would actually keep if elected. But at least it offers the modest comfort that Romney knows better.