Is the world better off than it was eight years ago?
Is the Middle East? Is Iraq? These questions, echoing the one asked by Ronald Reagan in his debate with Jimmy Carter just before the 1980 election, should be posed by all Republicans until the polls close in November 2016. Added to these are a few other things . . .
Is Ukraine better off? Do we have more allies? Are we more trusted by them? Of course some countries are better off now than they were before Barack Obama unleashed his transformative powers, but these include Iran, Russia, and Cuba, which may not be a good thing. (On the other hand, our relations with Israel, the Gulf Arabs, and the former possessions of the Soviet empire have hit a new low.) Is the Western world safer from terrorist violence? Since ISIS exploded, violent incidents triggered by it have taken place in countries as widespread as Denmark, Australia, and France. By contrast, since the shock of September 11, 2001, nothing of the sort has taken place again in America, which most at the time would have thought an unlikely development. In the weeks and months after, President Bush, in a very short time and under a great deal of pressure, constructed protocols for the containment of terror that prevented further attacks on this country, and that Obama, despite much complaining, once he was in office did nothing to change. It is a fact that after a brilliantly executed invasion in 2003, Bush let the occupation of Iraq begin badly, and become a catastrophe, but it is a fact too that at the very last moment he changed course dramatically, and—against the intense opposition of the Democrats—turned the situation around by the time he left office, so dramatically that in a few years the Democrats would be saying it had been their accomplishment.
Despite the complaints from the left (and from some on the right) that the Bush foreign policy had been a disaster, the facts are that his security policy was a success, and he left Iraq on a fairly sound footing and in the process of evolving into an imperfect democracy. (If you don’t believe that, see what the Democrats were saying circa 2010-2012, or just prior to our leaving that country.) The last two are facts, based on what did and what failed to happen, and the assessments made at the time, and not later in retrospect. On the contrary, the complaints made by critics—that the invasion of Iraq was unwise and unwarranted, and that the world would have been better off had Saddam stayed in power—are based on conjecture, and the creation of alternative outcomes in projected scenarios that have no basis in fact.
Take the grilling of Republican candidates about whether the Iraq war was worth it, or if they would have launched the war had they known already that no caches of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons were there on the ground to be found. The answer to this is “of course not,” but neither Bush nor anyone else could know this at the time, and one purpose of war was to find out if they were there, something Saddam had made obvious would take a war to find out. Several candidates had struggled to say this, until Charles Krauthammer explained it in the Washington Post: “The question is not just a hypothetical, but an inherently impossible hypothetical. It contradicts itself. Had we known there were no weapons of mass destruction, the very question would not have arisen. The premise of the war—the basis for going to the U.N. and to Congress and indeed to the nation—was Iraq’s possession of WMD in violation of the central condition for the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War.” Indeed, it is possible, even logical, to say that had we known there were no WMDs, we would not have invaded, but since we did not know that, the possibility of leaving WMDs in the hands of an erratic, despotic enemy of the United States who had a score to settle with the president’s family and indeed the whole country, was too great to take. The far-left, or paranoid, reading—that Bush was not merely swayed by bad information but actively lied or cherry-picked information to make his case plausible—has to contend with the failure of the president to plant evidence or arrange later that it somehow be “found” by inspectors. What kind of war-mad stage villain tells lies that are bound to be found out as lies later? Isn’t faking what good villains do?
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said America should focus on the current challenges and problems faced in Iraq. Speaking on CBS's Face the Nation, Walker responded to a question from Bob Schieffer about potential 2016 rival Jeb Bush's difficult time answering questions about the 2003 invasion of Iraq that his brother, George W. Bush, argued for as president. Another Republican candidate, Marco Rubio, has also said apparently conflicting things about the wisdom of the invasion.
As the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) capture territory and establish a caliphate stretching across the now-eradicated Syria-Iraq border, hard-won gains secured with American blood and treasure are being lost. We are watching the rise of potentially the gravest threat to our national security in a generation, one that surpasses even the threat we faced on 9/11.
One of the minor disgraces of this year's campaign is that the presidential candidates act as if the war in Afghanistan doesn't exist. We have 84,000 troops fighting over there in very difficult circumstances; they've had a tough few weeks, with 41 killed in the last month, but the candidates barnstorm the country with barely a mention of the war or the troops.
Tuesday's Wall Street Journal features a very important piece on Afghanistan by Kim and Fred Kagan. The Kagans show how irresponsible it would be for the president to announce the withdrawal of a substantial number of troops in July, as some political advisers in the White House are advocating. They also point out how irresponsible it would be to establish a "bookend" of announcing the planned withdrawal of all the surge troops in 2012.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, famously said in 2007 that “in Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” That strategic view was supposed to change when Barack Obama was elected president. It was candidate Obama, after all, who argued that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to be fighting, and a significant distraction from the far more important conflict in Afghanistan.
President Obama sure did cover a lot of ground last week in his address to the nation announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq. At times the speech resembled one of those late-night, beer-fueled freshman dorm bull sessions, where you start off discussing Led Zeppelin and end up ten hours later debating the ontological principle.
Though he'll regretably be remembered most for his turn in Rolling Stone, we should not forget Gen. Stanley McChrystal's contributions to his country, the Army, and the conflict in Afghanistan.
At McChrystal's Fort McNair retirement ceremony Friday, Robert Gates said of the general, "Over the past decade, arguably no single American has inflicted more fear, more loss of freedom and more loss of life on our country's most vicious and violent enemies than Stan McChrystal."