Byron York has an interesting piece (subscription required, but gist easily gotten from the excerpt) in World Affairs on the dog that didn’t bark after the last two elections: Republicans and conservatives have talked about rethinking virtually every issue that could be considered a political liability except for the Iraq war. Even though there were predictions that this debate would come — York mentions criticism of the neoconservatives at the post-election conservative gathering hosted by Brent Bozell — there isn’t much evidence of it now.
Indeed, for all the political problems that the war in Iraq caused for Republican candidates around the country, if you ask virtually any group of rank-and-file conservatives what has gone wrong with the Republican Party, a majority will point first to out-of-control government spending. Some will say the GOP has abandoned its core, Reaganite values. Some will rue the party’s failure to connect with young and minority voters, and some will say Republicans need to find better ways to address health care, or education. But very few, if any, will mention Iraq, or the Bush Doctrine, or the war on terror in general—the issues most closely associated with neoconservatives.
I complained about Iraq emerging as a litmus test issue before the primaries (though, as it turned out, Rudy Giuliani’s support for the war did not actually make up for his social liberalism with key primary voters). But I think there are a few reasons conservatives haven’t engaged in any rethinking of Iraq since 2006 and 2008. One is that an overwhelming majority of them supported the invasion in the wake of 9/11, not just the neocons, and most conservatives seem to believe that the success of the surge in reducing violence has vindicated the entire Iraq project. This is even more true of conservatives with foreign policy or national defense expertise; conservatives with such expertise or even a primary interest in foreign affairs were strong supporters of the Iraq war. The exceptions were the paleos, who operate almost entirely outside of the mainstream movement, and the realists, many of whom took the Chuck Hagel route of being lukewarm supporters of the initial invasion and voiceiferous opponents of the surge, a combination which did not make them look very realistic. The fact that there is no shortage of conservatives who primarily work on tax and budget policy who privately grumble about the war doesn’t do much to shift the intraconservative foreign-policy debate.
Ron Paul tried to launch that debate with his Republican presidential candidacy. His antiwar views contributed to him doing better than anyone reasonably expected when he jumped into the race, but they also created a ceiling on his support within Republican primaries (some of his enthusiastic young followers were also a liability). Paul is currently more popular among Democrats and independents in some polls than among Republicans. Maybe a Republican whose opposition to the war was part of a less radical critique of American foreign policy than Paul’s would have done better. But, given that the likeliest alternative was somebody like Hagel, maybe not.
Two things have to happen before we conclude that a Republican/conservative Iraq rethink will never happen. The first is that George W. Bush will have to leave office. The second is we’ll have to see what happens when Barack Obama starts running the country’s foreign policy. If Obama presides over a disastrous withdrawal from Iraq, it is unlikely that we’ll see significant Republican second thoughts about the war. If instead he stays the course himself while engaging in numerous humanitarian interventions around the globe, anything is possible.