Why GOP Presidential Candidates Can Never Give the Right Answer on Iraq

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On Fox News Sunday, Rubio couldn't answer the question: “Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq?”

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about the GOP’s struggle with the legacy of the Iraq War, George Stephanopoulos’ Clinton Foundation donation, and the finales of Mad Men and The Late Show With David Letterman.

Right behind Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio became the second Republican hopeful to run into the latest GOP litmus test: being asked if it was a mistake to invade Iraq. (Scott Walker and Rand Paul have so far been able, just barely, to avoid the question directly.) What’s the right answer here?
The reason Republican presidential candidates can’t come up with a “right answer” on Iraq is that there is no right answer that can satisfy both of their contradictory constituencies: (1) the voters they need to reach in the general election and (2) their party’s powerful neocon foreign-policy dead-enders, from Dick Cheney to Bill Kristol, who have not retreated one iota from their view that the Iraq War was the right thing to do, for the right reasons, and that anyone who says otherwise is soft on terrorism. Voters, by contrast, know full well that we blundered into Iraq for specious reasons, vaporizing thousands of American lives and some half million Iraqi lives (not to mention at least $2 trillion) with the end result of making America less safe and delivering Iraq into the clutches of both a new generation of radical Islamic terrorists and Iran. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last October found that a record high 66 percent of American adults thought the war wasn’t worth it. More record highs are sure to come. Even as Rubio was trying to stutter his way out of the Iraq-answer quagmire, Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was falling to ISIS. This was only days after a 19-year-old college student reminded Jeb Bush that ISIS itself was a byproduct of his brother’s invasion of Iraq and the mismanaged occupation that followed. 

Keep in mind that the question that tripped up both Rubio and Jeb Bush was asked on Fox News. Imagine what will happen when the GOP presidential field has to take tougher questions from outside the right’s bubble. After all, as many have pointed out, the general tenor of the Fox question — “Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq?” — is stupid. As James Fallows has written, it’s comparable to asking, “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?” The question rewrites history by postulating that “bad intelligence” about Saddam Hussein’s (nonexistent) nuclear weapons is what precipitated the war, duping the poor Bush Administration (and its Democratic enablers, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) into a war they otherwise would have rejected. The reality is the reverse. The Iraq War was an idee fixe in the Bush White House shortly after 9/11 (if not before, in some quarters) and over the next year, false casus belli were fashioned to sell it.

There have been several books written about the run-up to the war in Iraq. For those who are foggy on the history now being sanitized, I’ll cite one representative example from my own that illustrates how Jeb Bush’s brother and his posse operated. On Sunday, September 8, 2002, the Times ran a front-page story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller with the headline: U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts.” The article quoted anonymous “hardliners” who ominously argued that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’ … may be a mushroom cloud.” The suspect Times story postulating incipient A-bombs, the “mushroom cloud” sometimes included, was regurgitated that same Sunday morning on every talk show by administration officials: Condoleezza Rice (CNN’s Late Edition), Cheney (Meet the Press), Donald Rumsfeld (Face the Nation), and Colin Powell (Fox News Sunday). A month later, George W. Bush invoked that propagandistic “mushroom cloud” in a speech and added another bit of fiction to it: a nonexistent link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. That “mushroom cloud” locution, by the way, was not the product of bad intelligence but the creation of a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson, now a Washington Post op-ed columnist.

And so a more revealing question that should be asked of potential presidents today is, “Knowing what was known then and now, how would you prevent such duplicity in your White House?” Also: “Would you hire the architects of the Iraq fiasco for any job in your administration?” Some of them are already foreign-policy advisers and tutors to the candidates, with Jeb Bush even seeking the counsel of Paul Wolfowitz, one of the prime perpetrators of the pre-war fantasy that the war would be a cakewalk. Tough questions must be asked of Hillary Clinton as well. She didn’t start calling her cynical Senate vote in favor of the Iraq invasion “a mistake” until after it had helped cost her the 2008 election. She needs to provide a fuller explanation of what she did knowing what she did then, and to explain her unreconstructed reflexive hawkishness when confronted with almost any foreign-policy choice.

After Politico “broke” the story of George Stephanopoulos’s undisclosed $75,000 donation to the Clinton Foundation, it’s been revealed that dozens of others who are covering Hillary Clinton have made similar contributions. Does this discovery mitigate Stephanopoulos’s decision, or make it more of a scandal?
The list of Clinton Foundation contributors is quite remarkable — everyone across the political and corporate spectrum from Viacom, Time Warner, NBC Universal, and Bloomberg L.P. to the single biggest shareholder in the Times (Carlos Slim) and Rupert Murdoch’s heir apparent, his son James. You half-expect Matt Drudge to turn up on the list of donors. My own belief is that if you really want to do good in the world and support the worthy charitable enterprises underwritten by this foundation, you can do it without having the Clintons as middlemen. There are other organizations that do the same work and need help. The only reason to use the Clintons as brokers is because you are doing some transaction with a family that may end up back in the White House. The fact that almost everybody is doing it doesn’t make it right. There’s no safety in numbers from conflict-of-interest scandals. Anyone who might have an interest in currying favor with a President Hillary Clinton should seek an immediate divorce from the Foundation. 

With this week’s final episodes of Mad Men and David Letterman’s Late Show, mainstays of two different eras of television are ending side by side. What will you miss about each?
I have admired Mad Men since the pilot and Letterman since his ill-fated daytime show on NBC. In the past few weeks, there’s been an outpouring of astute assessment of both these institutions – smart criticism that in itself testifies to how much television has grown during their respective tenures, and to how much both Letterman and the Mad Men auteur Matthew Weiner have, in their respective ways, revamped two of the medium’s oldest forms, the dramatic series and the late-night talk show.

Rather than add to that analysis, I’ll just give my simplistic emotional reaction: What I am going to miss is the people. Letterman is a pure creature of television whom we didn’t really know beyond his on-air persona. But the man he did show us, besides being funny, and inventive, and irascible, and all that, was a figure of complete integrity. By that, I don’t mean infallible: He made mistakes, career mistakes and personal ones, as do we all. Yet throughout his incredibly long run, even in his show’s fallow periods or during his brush with scandal, he was consistently the same guy, warts and all. And that was reassuring at 11:30 at night in the same way that his role model, Johnny Carson, was. You could count on Dave to stubbornly stay true to himself even as the world (and television) changed all around him.

As for Mad Men, I am also most going to miss the people, pure and simple. Indeed, so indelible and complexly human are Weiner’s characters that I have never stopped missing those who departed in past seasons — Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), Sal Romano (Bryan Batt), and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), among so many others. The inspired coda to the series finale, the invocation of that classic 1971 Coke commercial, didn’t leave me thirsting for a Coke but did make me ravenous to see the entire series over again. I can’t wait, actually.