The Next 20

Weapon of Self-Destruction

How the Iraq war wrecked the GOP.

trump iraq war.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Patrick Baz/Getty Images and John Moore/Getty Images.

In 1995, when Michael Kinsley approached Microsoft with the idea that would become Slate, the Republican Party had occupied the White House for all but two of the previous 14 years. The Soviet Union was dead. Foreign policy was a national afterthought. Violent crime was at a peak, a staple of Republican campaigns. The country had just suffered its worst terror attack, a bombing in Oklahoma City by white extremists. In the 1994 elections, the GOP had picked up 10 governorships, eight Senate seats, and 54 House seats, seizing control of Congress. When people talked about a war in Iraq, they meant the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91, led by President George H.W. Bush and hailed as a triumph of international law enforcement.

Two decades later, that landscape is unrecognizable. Democrats are likely to retain the presidency for a third consecutive term, a feat unseen since the GOP reign of 1981 to 1993. Russia is a resurgent predator. Republicans in Congress talk more about criminal justice reform than they do about crime. Several of this year’s Republican presidential candidates campaigned against the National Security Agency, and most recoiled from the idea of sending troops to the Middle East. The party’s nominee, Donald Trump, brags that he opposed the Iraq war, a lie that reflects how far the political winds have shifted.

Many events contributed to these changes. A few obvious examples are 9/11, the great recession, and the Arab Spring. But one story overshadows them all: the Iraq war. Its direct consequences are obvious: a regime toppled, lives lost, money spent, and an aftermath of strife, chaos, and terror. What’s less well-understood are its political ramifications.

The war left two political vacuums. One is in Iraq, where the post-Saddam government can barely hold its own against ISIS and other sectarian forces. The other is in the United States. The war discredited Republican management of the presidency. George W. Bush devoted six years to a massive policing and nation-building project, and he failed. His failure destroyed the GOP’s self-confidence and led many Americans to turn away, embracing alternatives on the left and right.

I supported the resolution that gave Bush the authority to go to war. I can bore you with lots of excuses about how Bush didn’t use that authority the way I thought he should. They’re the same excuses you’ve heard from Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and all the other Democrats who voted for the resolution. But the bottom line, 14 years later, is that people like me still have to make excuses. We’re embarrassed and chastened. And even for supporters of the war who aren’t chastened, it’s a wound that never heals. Iraq is a mess they’ll always have to defend.

Not many people, even on the right, praise Bush today. Budget hawks wince at the deficits he piled up by cutting taxes while failing to tackle entitlements. Republican politicians pretend their party had nothing to do with the financial crash. Conservatives are still choking on the bailouts. But the party’s biggest black eye is Iraq. In every Gallup Poll for the past 10 years, most Americans have said the war was a mistake. Two years ago, in an Economist/YouGov survey, 69 percent of Republicans said Iraq probably would never become a stable democracy. A plurality of Republicans, 47 percent to 34 percent, said the United States had failed to accomplish its objectives.

Before the war, Vice President Dick Cheney assured Americans that Iraqis, fed up with Saddam Hussein, would embrace our troops as liberators. That prediction proved naïve. But Cheney wasn’t wrong about pent-up rage in Iraq. It’s the same rage that later erupted in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. When dictators suppress dissent, eventually the dissent explodes.

The same thing can happen in democracies. The explosion is weaker because the suppression is weaker. But it can happen in a country like ours—and as the war dragged on, it did. Bush and Cheney made the 2004 election a referendum on Iraq. They attacked the patriotism of anyone who criticized their conduct of the war. This ruthless strategy secured their re-election, but it came at a price. As the occupation soured and the body bags piled up, public unease turned to unrest and anger. Were Iraqis better off than they had been under Saddam? Was America safer? Where were the weapons of mass destruction? Why had we invaded a country that had nothing to do with 9/11? How had a party that ridiculed the competence of government at home led us into a bloody, multi-trillion-dollar nation-building project abroad? In 2006, voters stripped the Republican Party of its majorities in Congress. In 2008, they evicted it from the White House.

Today, the GOP is a failed state. It failed at fiscal management, economic stewardship, and military judgment. Then, when sectarian forces rose up on the right, GOP leaders failed to confront them. Anti-government, anti–gun control, and anti-immigrant zealots seized control of Republican primaries and cowed Republican lawmakers.* Now these militants have put their own warlord, Trump, on the throne. He spurns everything the establishment stood for: internationalism, free trade, migrant labor, decorum, expertise. To his critics in the Republican elite, Trump has a one-word answer: Iraq. These are the geniuses who wrecked our country, he says. Ignore them.

Iraq shook the Democratic establishment, too. It cost Hillary Clinton her party’s nomination for president in 2008. Eight years later, it nearly cost her the nomination again, this time to a socialist. While Trump ridiculed Jeb Bush and other hawks for having supported the war, Bernie Sanders hammered the same point against Clinton. Months after Sanders left the race, Trump still quotes one of the Vermont senator’s most damning lines: that Clinton’s vote to authorize the use of force showed bad judgment. Trump also rebukes Clinton for the 2011 military intervention in Libya, in which she and President Obama tried and failed to avoid the creation of another breeding ground for terrorism. Clinton hasn’t sworn off another Libya-style air campaign, but she’s pledging not to send troops back to the Middle East. No more Iraqs.

Trump and Sanders are right to criticize the politicians who led us into war. But the sins of the old order don’t validate the new disorder. That’s obvious in Iraq, where Saddam’s dictatorship has been replaced by ethnic and religious violence. It’s also true in the United States. The establishment’s collapse hasn’t spawned an enlightenment. It has accelerated our ideological segregation. The GOP has become a party of denunciations and show votes, disowning not just the war but any role in governing the country. The Democratic Party, sick of war and wage stagnation, remains in Clinton’s grip but is increasingly dominated by people who have lost patience with fiscal restraint and the role of global policeman. Many of us, Slate included, are drifting into echo chambers on the left or right.

There won’t be another war like Iraq for a long time. That’s because it’s the mistake we just made. Instead, we’ll repeat one of the mistakes we made before Iraq. Maybe it will be a humanitarian mission gone bad, like Somalia. Or a lapse of vigilance, like 9/11. Or passivity in the face of genocide, like Rwanda. When our descendants reproach us, it won’t be just for what we did in Iraq. It will be for what we didn’t do in Syria, where roughly 430,000 people have died in the past five years. We’re always fighting the last war. Or, in this case, not fighting it.

*Correction, Sept. 28, 2016: This article originally misstated that the sectarian forces that seized control of the GOP primaries were anti-gun. They were anti–gun control. (Return.)

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.