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What Republicans Need to Say About Iraq

"I believe war in Iraq was a mistake."

Eight words, eleven syllables, none of them tough to pronounce. Unless, of course, you're a GOP presidential hopeful.

In a 2007 New Hampshire Republican primary debate the question was put to several GOP hopefuls, "Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?"

Mitt Romney ducked, calling it a "null set." Rudy Giuliani said it was "absolutely the right thing to do" and a necessary component of the war on terror. John McCain played up Saddam Hussein's past use of chemical weapons and affirmed, "We did the right thing." Mike Huckabee reminded the audience that a nebulous "they" are determined "to destroy every last one of us."

Because clearly 19 Iraqis hijacked planes and crashed them into U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.

Ron Paul, "Dr. No," stood alone, reaching for a medical metaphor to say of the surge, "It was a mistake to go, so it's a mistake to stay. If we made the wrong diagnosis, we should change the treatment."

Answers weren't more varied in the next primary go-round. Of the four semiserious players who came out of New Hampshire -- Romney, Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- only one was not bellicose on the subject.

Many Republicans criticized President Barack Obama's intervention in Libya and his attempted meddling in Syria. Absent criticism of Iraq, they risk looking like they're only against foolish wars when those wars are proposed by Democrats. Which raises the question: Why should voters care about trading one set of bumblers for another, especially after that other group had proved itself incapable of learning?

Any Republican seeking nomination for the 2016 presidential election should at a minimum be willing to admit Iraq was a mistake.  it was an error that cost us upwards of $1.5 trillion, thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, while seriously hindering our efforts to track down the real culprits of September 11. (The war, incidentally, helped pave the way for a Nancy Pelosi-controlled House and a Barack Obama-controlled White House, as well.)

Republican pols are afraid to do so because they read American opinion polls. These polls show that either a large plurality or a bare majority of Americans think the war was a mistake. Those numbers would be much higher if Republican voters agreed with the majority. Since they need to win over Republican voters for the nomination, many presidentially-minded pols are reluctant to admit a Republican-sponsored war of choice was the wrong call.

They ought to take the chance and tell the truth. It would help restore the party's credibility with the broad mass of independent voters and with those Democrats sick of the George W. Bush-Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton foreign policy framework. It would also force rank-and-file party regulars to either cease their misguided cheerleading or bury their own heads ever deeper in the sand.

On that score, count me an optimist. My sense is, truth would be a welcome relief in this debate. Republicans as a whole would rather not be weighed down, over a decade later, by a botched and unpopular war.

(AP Photo)

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