the 2020 election in the shadow of the Iraq War

Polls usually show that foreign policy is a low-priority issue in US political campaigns. This year is no exception: asked to choose one priority, just 13 percent of prospective voters recently selected foreign policy.

But I think the Iraq and Afghan wars influence Americans in deeper ways. These are not “foreign policy issues,” like how we should address Brexit or North Korea. They represent a wound that hasn’t been treated. The question on people’s minds is not, “What should we do about Iraq?” or even “What should have been done in 2001?” The question underneath people’s explicit thinking is: “What kind of people are in charge of our country?”

After all, the decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan caused about 60,000 US casualties. (That includes those killed or wounded but not suicides or PTSD cases.)

It is very hard to know how many Iraqis and Afghans have died, because the data are not available and because it’s debatable how much causal responsibility the US holds for the deaths of various combatants and civilians. However, by 2007, 53% of Iraqis were saying that “a close friend or relative” had “been hurt or killed in the current violence.”

The running tab for the two wars is about $6 trillion, which is about 30% of the goods and services that all Americans produce in a year.

And for all this sacrifice and damage, we have lost–failing to attain any of the original objectives of the Bush Administration. Iran has the most power in Iraq; we are negotiating a ceasefire with the Taliban, whom we supposedly defeated in 2002.

For some Americans, none of this may be very salient. But for others, it reflects a deep betrayal by the global elites who sent our men and women into danger overseas. For still others, it is a classic case of American imperialism running amok. Considering the magnitude of the disaster, the debate has been relatively marginal or even submerged. But I think it’s always just below the surface.

Consider the record of these presidential candidates since 2008:

  • Hillary Clinton: votes for the war, apparently in large part because she, her husband, and other senior members of her own party favored it (not just because of the Bush Administration). She later calls her vote her mistake but still feels qualified to run for president in 2008 and 2016 and to serve as a hawkish Secretary of State in between. Thus she is partly responsible for managing the war after having helped to start it. When she comes before the voters, she loses both times.
  • Barack Obama: against the war from the outset, not in Washington when it starts, seems to want to wind it down; wins the presidency twice.
  • Jeb Bush: the presumed front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2016, but his brother launched the wars. Wins 4 delegates in the 2016 primary.
  • Donald Trump: actually fairly positive about the war when it started, but claims to have been against it, which is consistent with his general attitude that foreign interventions waste American lives and treasure. Beats all the establishment Republican primary candidates and Clinton. In office, battles the national security establishment and generally refrains from deploying US military assets overseas. His record conveys a willingness to spend money on the troops, a reluctance to put them in danger, and a contempt for the top brass. Now he’s in a good position for reelection.
  • Joe Biden: as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he votes to authorize the war. Although he is the former vice president in a popular Democratic administration, he looks likely to lose the current primary.
  • Pete Buttigieg: he opposes the Iraq War yet serves in Afghanistan–sort of the opposite of the bipartisan elites who started the war without putting themselves in danger. Considering that he’s the 38-year-old mayor of the 4th-largest city in Indiana, he’s done pretty well in a presidential primary campaign.
  • Bernie Sanders: the only Democratic primary candidate who can provide clear evidence that he was opposed to the war and tried to stop it. This is credible not only because his House vote was recorded but because he has opposed almost all US interventions since the 1970s.

If you believe (as I tend to) that dominant US institutions deserved to be sustained and protected even after the debacle of these wars, then there should have been a much deeper house-cleaning. It’s true that Members of Congress who voted for the war faced a hard choice with limited knowledge and no foreknowledge of the 19 years ahead. Nevertheless, they chose wrong and should have been banished from public life unless they took full responsibility for their own decisions and used their power to prevent anything similar from happening again. You don’t shake off hundreds of thousands of deaths, a $6 trillion bill, and a catastrophic defeat and move on to other topics. National leadership is a privilege, not a right, and if you help cause a disaster, you lose the privilege.

Some Americans never had strong reasons to sustain dominant US institutions. They have now been joined by people for whom the past 19 years provide reasons for distrust–whether they believe that globalist elites have betrayed real Americans or that America is the global bully of the neoliberal era. Although I make no equivalence between Trump and Sanders–they are opposites in character, policy proposals, and commitment to democracy and rule of law–a national campaign between those two is surely a consequence of decisions made by 2003.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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