This week punishment came to one presidential candidate telling a truth and reward came to another telling a lie. Such perverse incentives regarding honesty created the bizarro political world we inhabit.
“He was a bad guy — really bad guy,” Donald Trump said of Saddam Hussein. “But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”
Earlier this week, terrorists murdered 150 or so people in a Baghdad bombing. A war justified to roll back international terrorism instead unleashed it. Harvard of terrorism, indeed.
The outrage over Trump’s comments stems only in part from the candidate’s impolitic praise for a man deserving condemnation. The larger part of the indignation comes from Trump representing a challenge to both parties’ foreign policy shibboleths, which themselves represent a challenge to common sense.
The Republican nominee did not misjudge “bad guy” Saddam Hussein — at least the current Republican nominee didn’t.
Like George W. Bush, his successor rarely thinks about consequences. Whereas Bush neglected to anticipate what might fill the void in Iraq, Barack Obama initially chose ISIS over Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood over Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and jihadists over Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Neither the president nor his predecessor grasped the difference between regional bullies and deluded Islamists aiming for world domination, garden-variety evil dictators found in every corner of the globe and fanatics endemic to the Islamic world, and secular strongmen and sectarian true believers.
Like so many moves on the real-life “Risk” board, the invasion of Iraq unwittingly sided with worse over bad. But it’s the current GOP presidential nominee, pundits insist with a straight face, who made a terrible strategic error regarding Iraq.
More than a decade ago, the fledgling blogosphere pushed the heady theory of “Iraq the model,” which posited that a nation-building exercise in Mesopotamia would unleash a chain reaction of democracies in the Middle East. “I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators,” Vice President Dick Cheney misjudged. Ken Adelman wrote in the Washington Post, “I believe demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” Bizarre conspiracy theories touting Saddam Hussein’s links to everything from the initial World Trade Center attack to the Oklahoma City Bombing to 9/11 (through a meeting that didn’t happen in Prague with Muhammad Atta) arose in publications whose editors should have known better.
The Bush Administration relied on a conman codenamed Curveball as the basis for its false contentions about a secret biological weapons program, on forged documents for its claims that Hussein attempted to procure uranium from Niger to make nukes, and on New York Times reports on weapons of mass destruction that used the discredited Ahmed Chalabi as a source.
Few of the allegations or predictions turned out correct. Errors of fact and judgment plagued the whole operation.
But it’s Donald Trump who got Iraq wrong?
Like most people who talk too much, Trump appears gaffe prone. His varying positions on guns, abortion, and socialized medicine over the years also reveal a candidate without a solid grounding in conservatism. But his instincts on foreign policy more greatly resemble conservative thought than those who doubt the federal government’s ability to deliver a letter but believe that its armies can somehow transform desert-dwelling Muhammadans into Vermont-style town meeting members.
Edmund Burke, the Irishman serving in the British Parliament who became the philosophical godfather of American conservatism, warned in Reflections on the Revolution in France against overthrowing the existing order without forethought. He noted that “a sober legislator would carefully compare the possessor whom he was recommended to expel, with the stranger who was proposed to fill his place” before embarking upon violent upheaval. A few years later, George Washington asked in his Farewell Address, “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” More than a half century ago, Young Americans for Freedom posited, “American foreign policy must be judged by this criterion: does it serve the just interests of the United States?”
But of late many conservatives look not to such writings for foreign policy guidance but to D.C. and Marvel. Trump rejects this conception of America as a superhero savior-state.
Whether his brain knows Sharon Statement from Sharon Osbourne, his gut gets that attempting to remake Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and points beyond does little to make America great again.