Some liberal hawks—editorialists and op-ed columnists at the Washington Post, most conspicuously—never recanted. Others conceded their mistakes with so many caveats, so much blame-shifting, or in such soft whispers that it hardly mattered. They just kept marching on as if it were all blood under the bridge. Even as Iraq tumbled into chaos, the “only people qualified to speak on the matter,” Tony Judt marveled in 2006, were “those who got it wrong initially.” That’s largely the case with foreign affairs today. And, as Krugman wrote on the tenth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, so few lessons have been learned from the debacle that an “exaggerated and inappropriate reverence for authority” now infects so-called serious debate on domestic policy, too. The apocalyptic debt crisis constantly trumpeted by Washington’s bipartisan Establishment for the past several years has proved as illusory as Saddam’s phantom nuclear warheads.
“We live in a world the Iraq War has made,” Danner wrote last December. For the time being, we are defending ourselves against that reality with denial. The public doesn’t want to hear more about the war from anyone, period. That the latest round of Department of Veterans Affairs scandals arrived as a shock to much of Congress, the news media, and the populace shows just how deaf we’ve been even to the longtime complaints of our wounded warriors. All of Hollywood’s serious 9/11-Iraq-Afghanistan movies except one have struggled to find audiences, with The Hurt Locker proving to be the lowest-grossing Best Picture Oscar winner in movie history. (The one hit has been Zero Dark Thirty, which told of our sole clear-cut victory, the killing of Osama bin Laden.) When foreign-policy debate sporadically erupts on the campaign trail or in Washington—whether over Libya, Syria, Egypt, or Russia—the public tunes it out.
That debate, if it can even be labeled as such, is paralyzed at its core by the specter of Iraq. In both political parties, the talking points rarely get beyond the question of whether Barack Obama is enough of an Alpha Dog in his saber-rattling rhetoric and actions—an empty exercise in intellectual vamping given that the country wouldn’t support the hawks’ inchoate prescriptions for Putin-esque action by an American president even if Obama signed on to them. The Vietnam syndrome, supposedly buried after the first Gulf war, is back. When the same liberal hawks who sped us into Iraq call for intervention in Syria, the public shrugs them off just as it does the discredited Bush-Cheney and neocon claques. Little short of another attack on America will rouse the citizenry to enlist in any battle that cannot be waged with drones. But the potential consequences of the public’s disengagement from the global arena extend well beyond matters of war and peace. At a time of seismic change, the last thing America needs to do is “mind its own business internationally.”
Over the long term, there may well be a reckoning: Should the aftershocks set off by the Iraq invasion continue to unravel the world, or a large chunk of it, history will look back at the liberal and conservative hawks alike as having flunked the biggest judgment call of their time. They will be seen not just as counterparts to the bipartisan promoters of the Vietnam quagmire but as frivolous sleepwalkers akin to those who a century ago greased the skids for the catastrophe of World War I.
Over the short term, the domestic political fallout of this failure is still very much with us. Obama’s West Point speech was regarded by many as a riposte to the lengthy recent cri de coeur from the foreign-policy analyst Robert Kagan in The New Republic warning of dire consequences should a war-weary America continue to retreat from the world now as it did in the post–World War I 1920s. But even if Kagan’s fears are justified, he is oblivious to how flawed a messenger he is, as a major proponent of the Iraq War. And he underestimates how hard it will be to mobilize the country to mount any kind of military horse again after the disaster he did so much to cheer on.
Americans may have soured on President Obama since 2008, but they still do agree with him on this point, at least: Iraq was a “dumb war.” That distinction is not the least of the reasons they chose him over Hillary Clinton and John McCain. What both the liberal and conservative elites fail to appreciate as they express continued bafflement over the unexpected rise of a foreign-policy renegade like Rand Paul is that he shares this distinction with the president. Like Obama, he may wield it against his hawkish presidential-primary opponents, and, should it come to that, against Clinton as well. The ironies in this are both so wicked and profound, and so rooted in the epic liberal failure exhumed in The Last Magazine, that it’s all the more tragic that Michael Hastings won’t be here to hold everyone to account.