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“Yeah, I guess so.” Probably no set of words has been parsed and pulled apart more in the 2016 presidential election season than these four, uttered by Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump during a September 2002 interview with radio host Howard Stern when asked by the shock jock if he supported the proposed invasion of Iraq.
The interview, conducted on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was a medley of updates on the New York City investment environment and, on Stern’s ogling insistence, the whereabouts of Trump’s wife, Melania. But the interview has taken on a much larger life in the 2016 election, largely due to the real estate tycoon’s repeated and mostly erroneous claims that he was a vocal opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
During Monday night’s presidential debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the Republican candidate’s equivocal support for the Iraq War back in 2002 again took centerstage, as the two sparred over the veracity of the wealthy investor’s claims of being an early war critic.
“That is mainstream media nonsense put out by her,” argued Trump during the live debate at Hofstra University. “I was against the war in Iraq. … The record shows that I'm right.”
For Trump, such hyperbole and exaggeration is certainly nothing new. During a 2015 presidential primary debate, the bombastic billionaire asserted that the Bush administration had to send a delegation to Trump Tower to plead with the developer to tone down his anti-war rhetoric. This, as it turns out, probably never happened.
Additionally, in an op-ed written last year for USA Today, Trump argued that he opposed the Iraq invasion “from the very beginning, all the way back to 2004” -- more than a year after the United States had already invaded the country.
Trump’s dogged insistence that he was openly critical of the Iraq invasion represents a missed opportunity to draw a stark contrast between himself and Secretary Clinton, the chosen candidate of the foreign policy establishment. But to truly understand the nuance -- yes, nuance -- in Trump’s views on Iraq in those days leading up to the war, and how they appear to have informed his current foreign policy approach, it’s important to first consider the political climate of the post-9/11 United States.
The Fog of War Reporting
By the fall of 2002 a near consensus had congealed around the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration -- buffered by both popular and elite opinion -- had worked all that year to link Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to the scourge of global terrorism and, more importantly, to nuclear proliferation and other weapons of mass destruction.
Complicit in this campaign was a not-so-insignificant portion of the press and the policymaking community. Indeed, today’s inquisitors were in many cases yesterday’s enablers, and all that was required for their self-exoneration, carried out in most cases years after the fact, was a public mea culpa tour in the form of apologetic essays and blog posts. While some chocked their war support up to an “analytical failure," others provided more candid appraisal of their thinking at the time.
“I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk,” wrote liberal blogger and author Matthew Yglesias in 2010. “Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.”
That so many early war boosters went on to become some of its biggest critics only speaks to the persuasive powers of the country’s intellectuals and elected officials during the lead-up to war, and likewise to the potential for a country in chaos to attach itself to bad ideas and broken policymaking. And this is precisely Donald Trump’s point.
Secretary Clinton’s own timeline on the Iraq War has been far better documented, and her 2002 decision as senator to vote in favor of the invasion thwarted her 2008 presidential ambitions and prolonged her bid for the Democratic nomination this election.
Clinton, to her credit, hasn’t shied away from that vote and its many consequences, and supporters have noted that her decision to vote for the war came only after the Senate received assurances from the Bush administration that it would pursue U.N. approval for the military campaign, and that it would outline in detail its evidence linking Iraq to WMDs.
“[H]er vote on Iraq, under the circumstances, should not be seen as the indicator of her stance or judgment on armed intervention generally,” writes Slate’s Fred Kaplan.
Clinton, however, reiterated the Bush administration’s Iraq-9/11 linkage line during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews the following month:
“[T]here is a very strong argument … that any rogue state, particularly one headed by a person of such megalomania, and a history of gross miscalculation, like Saddam Hussein … in this new world, where you’ve got organized terrorists with money, and means, and global reach, who could therefore get access to weapons of mass destruction means that we have to put some attention there.”
Clinton’s record in her capacity as a United States senator, in addition to her time as secretary of state, is far more relevant to today’s Middle East foreign policy debate than the radio musings of an eccentric and wealthy real estate developer. And though the media schadenfreude over Trump’s unwillingness to part from his war opposition fiction is arguably overwrought and misplaced, the GOP flagbearer has clearly squandered an opportunity to poke the experts and elites who so erred during those days leading up to the war. Those who peddled the notion -- either explicitly as the Bush administration did, or more implicitly as Clinton did at the time -- that the attacks on 9/11 were somehow linked to the odious regime of Saddam Hussein were ultimately proven wrong, but only years after the fact, and well after the security situation in Iraq had deteriorated. A Washington Post poll released months after the invasion showed that nearly seven in 10 Americans believed then that the Iraqi dictator was “personally involved” in the 9/11 attacks.
This colossal, and collective, error in judgement by America’s elected officials in the months and years after Sept. 11 dovetails well with an argument often made by Trump while out on the stump, albeit inartfully: that America’s experts and elected officials -- beginning with the Bush administration and continued on by the Obama administration -- have become overly reliant on tactical pinpricks and half measures in the war against terrorism. Moreover, by bogging itself down in internal wars across the greater Middle East -- conflicts that historically end in stalemate -- the United States has committed itself to ill-defined and indefinite war.
There is a discernible doctrine of sorts in Trump’s opposition to this kind of statecraft and war waging. In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump writes:
“I’m no warmonger. But the fact is, if we decide a strike against Iraq is necessary, it is madness not to carry the mission to its conclusion. When we don’t, we have the worst of all worlds: Iraq remains a threat, and now has more incentive than ever to attack us.”
The billionaire articulated similar displeasure in the 2002 Stern interview, lamenting that he wished “the first time it was done correctly,” a reference to the first Gulf War and the decision by President George H.W. Bush to leave Hussein in power.
None of this amounts exactly to a clear rejection of war in Iraq, far from it, but it is a rejection of the way in which America has for decades handled the country.
That Trump’s present vision for post-war Iraq is illegal and arguably immoral doesn’t help the Republican candidate’s case, but it also doesn’t change the fact that the efforts by the American intelligentsia to paint Trump’s evolution as an outright flip-flop is a disingenuous one that consequently deprives voters of a serious debate on decades of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Who’s Checking the Fact Checkers on Trump’s Iraq Views? -- Wall Street Journal
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