Jeb Bush is making news today for saying that he still supports the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He says this, even while acknowledging that the intelligence that justified the invasion was faulty. Political scientists have studied this resistance among Republicans to call the invasion a mistake or to accept that there were no WMDs in Iraq. I have watched CNN’s Wolf Blitzer many times interview Republicans and conservative think tank experts on this topic and repeatedly ask them to acknowledge that the invasion was a mistake, and they never do.
This drives a lot of people crazy because they don’t understand why these people cannot just admit that the invasion was a mistake. And it isn’t just Democrats that are annoyed by this. Plenty of conservatives are strongly critical of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, and today they are going after Jeb Bush for supporting his brother and the war he started. A large portion of the Republican party has worked very hard to disassociate themselves from W. and Iraq, and Jeb is threatening to undo much of that.
The question is can reasonable people still disagree about the invasion, or are supporters simply biased (some might say blinded) by partisanship or ideology? Here are some thoughts:
There are hard implications to calling the invasion a mistake and saying it shouldn’t have happened. This wasn’t a failed green energy investment like Solyndra. This was a major world event that changed the course of history. So much is now a direct or indirect effect of that event, that to deny it is to deny the world we live in today. If the world were all bad, then maybe that would be an easier thing to do. Maybe we (the exclusive “we”, the righteous “we”) would need to start over with a clean slate, and somehow re-construct the world with more moral nations and networks. But most agree that this isn’t the case, that the world isn’t all bad, and that it would be suicidal to start from scratch. Rather, the world is fully engaged in a major ongoing conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and the good need our support.
Many Americans view the United States as leading the forces of good, and they want us to be victorious. This conflict is incredibly messy and requires a certain kind of attitude to persevere. Mistakes are made, but these mistakes must be turned into opportunities. All weaknesses must be turned into strengths. All defeats must be turned into victories. From every evil event we must pivot our attention to the heroes that emerge in response. If we surrender our belief that this is possible, then we will lose strength and resolve. But it is of no use overly embracing shame to vainly restore innocence, to return to a mythical Eden which, if ever existed, we were all banished from long ago.
This is why the shifting justification for the war came so natural to so many. The point was no longer that there were no WMD; the point was that an evil dictator had been removed from power, and democracy had been introduced, and with our help, democracy could take root and eventually stand on its own. Without the invasion, this never would have happened. So, we are left to choose — do we sacrifice our lives for Iraqi democracy, or do we wish that this Iraqi democracy never was? It is obvious how psychologically different these two attitudes are from each other. It is not easy to support a fight where you, your loved ones, your fellow countrymen (and women) are sacrificing life and limb. The fight must be justified. It must be noble. It must be honorable. It must be a contribution to the good of America, the good of Iraq, and the good of the world.
Is this a dangerous fact about political psychology — that at this level of national action, we can’t so easily sacrifice our own life and well-being for causes that are mired in regret, despair, and self-doubt? Yes, probably. And that’s why those who can easily state that the invasion was a mistake are right to say so and serve as crucial shapers of public opinion. Yet at the same time, such people inherently devalue the specific type of honor and nobility that participants in this war and their supporters believed they were fighting for all along. We need to find a balanced understanding where we can continue fighting and winning the fight against evil, both around the world and within our souls. Right now, it often seems like we can’t advance on one front without retreating on the other.