Frank Rich on the National Circus: How Iraq Wounded America

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Baghdad, IRAQ: TO GO WITH AFP STORIES ON ANNIVERSARY OF THE FALL OF BAGHDAD: (FILES) A US Marine covers the face of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's statue with the US flag in Baghdad's al-Fardous square 09 April 2003. The world was stunned when iconic images of US marines and Iraqis pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein flashed across television screens. The toppling of the statue was immediately seized on as symbolising the overthrow of one of the world's most notorious despots. But four years later, some Iraqis say the symbol has turned into a sign of the brutal violence that has devastated their country. The square and its surroundings have changed dramatically since the launch of the invasion in March 2003. AFP PHOTO/Ramzi HAIDAR (Photo credit should read RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: RAMZI HAIDAR/2007 AFP

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: what the Iraq War has wrought, Reince Priebus's GOP rebranding report, and Rob Portman's convenient gay-marriage reversal.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In The Greatest Story Ever Sold, written after the war's “Mission Accomplished” phase, you called the conflict a catastrophe “that might have been averted.” Looking back on it now, what surprised you most about how the war unfolded? And what do you think its most lasting impact on America will be?
If there’s one opinion shared by the war’s critics and cheerleaders, it would be their shock in discovering the Bush administration’s utter incompetence in executing its own ambitions. Given that Bush and Cheney professed to believe that Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction, why did they assume the mission would be a cakewalk and have no Plan B for a protracted fight, let alone a multiyear occupation? (The answer can’t be that it’s all Donald Rumsfeld’s fault.) Then again, given the Bush team’s utter ignorance of the country it was invading, perhaps every element of this fiasco was foretold. 

It’s too early to say what the war’s lasting impact on America (or Iraq or the Middle East) will be, but as for the current impact at home, any accounting must begin with the human cost. As David Rieff, a war opponent, wrote this week: “Could anyone who supported this war today encounter a relative, spouse, or friend of one of the American soldiers who was killed or grievously injured in Iraq and tell them with a straight face that this war was worth their sacrifice?” As it happens, some war supporters still do; Rieff’s piece is part of a telling symposium at The New Republic, where some “liberal hawks” can still be found rationalizing or obfuscating their early support for the war. It’s well worth reading to be reminded of their tortured logic and of just how bipartisan a folly the Iraq War was. Not the least of its legacies was yet another uptick in cynicism about all politicians and the press, much like that which followed Vietnam and Watergate. We should not forget that (as with Vietnam) many Democrats in Washington eagerly signed on to the war plan, and that many “liberal” pundits succumbed quickly to the war fever sweeping the Beltway. The Washington Post editorial page was as fervently a proponent (and defender) of the war as The Wall Street Journal. Virtually every top news organization, from the Times to the broadcast network news divisions, was better at abetting than vetting the White House propaganda campaign that fictitiously tied Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. We are still paying a huge price in many domestic arenas. The war bequeathed a new isolationism in both political parties, an extra-Constitutional national security state that is largely unchecked, and serious wreckage on the economy. It’s part of the shame of this misadventure that while some Americans were sacrificing their lives in Iraq, everyone at home was gorging on Bush’s wholesale tax cuts.  

The Republican National Committee released a postmortem report on the 2012 elections earlier this week full of suggestions on how to do better the next time. What do you think of this latest, greatest effort at Republican rebranding?
Read aloud deadpan at a comedy club, the RNC’s nearly hundred-page report, a.k.a its “Growth and Opportunity Project,” would be surefire stand-up material. With its talk of “Group Listening Sessions” and its call for an “Inclusion Council,” it reads like a Maoist reeducation plan, or perhaps a liberal affirmative-action treatise. There’s talk of hiring Hispanic and African-American “communications directors and political directors” and of finding “female spokespeople” to explain the party’s views to America’s female people. (Women “represent more than half the voting population in the country” is one of the report’s believe-it-or-not revelations.) We’re also informed that “America looks different” than it used to in the good old days and that “Obama was seen as ‘cool’” in 2008. Who’d have thunk it? To help counter these weird developments, the party chairman, Reince Priebus, announced that he wants “to hold Hackathons in tech-savvy cities like San Francisco, Austin, Denver, and New York — to forge relationships with developers and stay on the cutting edge.” (Could he not find a single red hackathon-worthy city?) Perhaps what’s most revealing about the report, however, is that it has already exacerbated the divide between the Republican Establishment, exemplified by Priebus and the report co-author Ari Fleischer, and the party’s base. The text virtually ignores the party’s Congressional leadership, the Christian right, and the tea party, while repeatedly praising George W. Bush as a Republican role model. No wonder the grassroots right is already ridiculing Priebus’s project more venomously than the mostly amused Democrats.

Last week, Ohio senator Rob Portman announced that he was supporting gay marriage. (His son, it turns out, is gay.) Do you expect other high-profile Republicans to soon follow suit? And what did you make of Hillary Clinton's own very belated pro-gay-marriage video released on Monday?
By his own account, Portman waited until two years after his son came out to change his position on gay marriage — that is, until after another election had passed. This is no profile in courage. As many, including Jonathan Chait, have written, there’s a selfishness to this change of heart: Portman didn’t give a damn about gay people’s rights until it turned out his son was among those reduced to second-class citizenship. This is in keeping with conservative politicians who suddenly favor stem-cell research, or federal medical funding, or taxpayer-supported mental-health initiatives only when someone in their immediate family turns out to be in need of them. I am sure other Republicans will follow Portman. They read the polls, and supporting gay marriage is a win-win with voters, as much as supporting immigration reform. But it shows just how conflicted the GOP as a whole still is that while Priebus’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” stipulates that Republicans should “campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans,” the one group that does not merit a detailed action plan in his report’s pages is gays ... Hillary Clinton’s video, like Bill Clinton’s belated disavowal of his own Defense of Marriage Act, is most notable as an early checkpoint in the to-do list for a 2016 presidential campaign.

The Times reported that NBC has "made a commitment" to have Jimmy Fallon replace Jay Leno as host of the Tonight Show by the fall of 2014 and relocate the show to New York. We've seen this movie before. Do you see a "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour in Jimmy Fallon's future?
I don’t know how Fallon will fare opposite Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, and Stephen Colbert, but we do know that somewhere Conan O’Brien is laughing. And it’s great that Tonight is returning to New York. I think Leno should also come east and try to rescue what the television press now uniformly refers to as “the beleaguered Today show.” It’s a natural home for him, and he could be Kathie Lee’s best morning sparring partner since Regis Philbin.