The banner photo at the top of the page – looking northwest from Mulholland Drive at sunset on the day of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, taking place far off in the distance – June, 2004 – has been there for the last nine years for a reason. It’s a reminder the guy is dead – but the light out here was good that day too. Still, that may be the year conservatism peaked in America. Saddam Hussein was tried and hung in Iraq, George Bush was reelected for a second term in November, in a close election, and five days later we launched a major assault on Fallujah, to rid the area of insurgents before the Iraqi elections in January. That took six days and many lives, and the Iraqi elections produced a Shiite government that only meant more trouble. Iraq collapsed into what looked like a civil war, and there were no weapons of mass destruction – there never were. Two years later the Republicans lost the House and Senate. Four years later they lost the White House. Somewhere in there Hurricane Katrina proved the guys in Washington were delusionally incompetent, and dangerous. In that last year of the Bush administration there was the total collapse of the economy. But the Iraq War was what killed Reagan’s dream of a small government that lets people sink or swim on their own, even in New Orleans in August 2005, with not much regulation of anything, until it’s too late, and with a military so large and awesome, ready to go to war anywhere over anything that offends us, that no one would mess with us ever again. All of that was buried out here in Simi Valley, with Ronald Reagan, that June – none of it worked out.
Conservative Republicans refuse to believe that, so a few times each year one or another of them will fly out to Simi Valley and give a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library there, with the ninety-four-year-old widow, Nancy Reagan, looking on. They’ll try to be Reaganesque. They’ll try to reanimate the corpse. This stuff should still work, and the latest to make the trek out here was Jeb Bush – the son of George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president for eight years, and the brother of George W. Bush, a president who, for eight years, did things the Reagan way – low taxes on the good people, minimal regulation, no government help for anyone when possible, and an awesome military so no one messes with us. He was actually a better Ronald Reagan than Ronald Reagan – but all of that is to say Jeb is family. He was there to say the old guy isn’t really dead. The ideas are just fine, and as CNN reports, his Simi Valley speech was all about foreign policy:
Jeb Bush, laying out his strategy to combat ISIS on Tuesday, called for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, defeating President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi forces, all the while expanding U.S. engagement across the globe.
In a foreign policy address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Bush invoked the former president’s description of communism to label ISIS “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
Same fight, different name:
The Republican presidential candidate also sharpened his attacks on President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for supporting the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, a decision that he said was made out of “blind haste.”
“So eager to be the history-makers, they failed to be the peacemakers,” Bush said. “Rushing away from danger can be every bit as unwise as rushing into danger, and the costs have been grievous.”
Bush, a former two-term governor of Florida, vowed to be “unyielding” in the pursuit to stamp out the “barbarians of ISIS,” a strategy that will hinge on greater military strength.
“I assure you: the day that I become president will be the day that we turn this around, and begin rebuilding the armed forces of the United States,” he said.
The text of the whole speech is here and contains this:
No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially. Yet in a long experience that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks, one moment stands out in memory as the turning point we had all been waiting for. And that was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory. It was a success, brilliant, heroic, and costly. And this nation will never forget the courage and sacrifice that made it all possible.
So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary? That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well. ISIS grew while the United States disengaged from the Middle East and ignored the threat. And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away. In all her record-setting travels, she stopped by Iraq exactly one time.
David Corn is not impressed:
Three months ago, Jeb Bush couldn’t give a straight answer to a simple question about the Iraq War – a stumble that raised serious questions about his quest for the Republican presidential nomination. How could he be unprepared for such an obvious matter? And now – when he’s not faring so well in the polls and trailing Donald Trump and others – he’s attempting a new tack: pointing his finger at Clinton. Though this stunt wins Bush attention – the New York Times front-paged his attack with the headline, “Bush Asserts a Clinton Role in Iraq Decline” – it’s absurd.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan examines the absurdities here:
Bush got a crucial fact wrong in this chronicle: His brother’s administration – not Obama’s – signed the status of forces agreement, on Nov. 17, 2008, which stated, in Article 24: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”
Article 30 of that same agreement stated that its terms could be amended “only with the official agreement of the Parties in writing and in accordance with the constitutional procedures in effect in both countries.” These “constitutional procedures” included a vote by the Iraqi Parliament – and at no time between 2008 and 2011 was the Iraqi Parliament going to take such a vote.
Granted, President Obama did want to get out of Iraq; he won the White House in large part on that promise, and there was no more support in the United States than in Iraq for a continued presence of American troops. And yet Obama did send emissaries – among them former aides to George W. Bush – to seek an amendment to allow a few thousand residual forces. The Iraqi government refused. Unless Obama wanted to re-invade the country, there was nothing to be done.
And the surge wasn’t what Jeb said:
Though it was a huge tactical success, it did not pave the way toward “victory.” As its architect, Gen. David Petraeus, said on several occasions, the surge was meant merely to create some “breathing space,” a “zone of security,” so that Iraq’s political factions could form a unified government. The problem was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn’t want unity: He didn’t want to make a deal on power-sharing, oil revenues, or land settlements with Sunni or Kurdish leaders; he wanted to maintain Shiite dominance – and it was Maliki’s stubbornness that revived the sectarian violence and left a lane open for ISIS, whose leaders exploited their fellow Sunnis’ resentments.
And there’s more:
Later in Tuesday night’s speech, Bush said that the Iraq surge can serve as a model for how “Islamic moderates can be pulled away from extremist forces” in Syria. I doubt that he was proposing to send 100,000 U.S. troops to Syria, as his brother did in Iraq—an idea that would appeal to almost no American generals or voters. But what he was proposing isn’t at all clear.
Bush also decried Obama’s “limited strikes and other half-measures” against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. But does this mean that he’s proposing all-out strikes and full measures? As president, he said, he would “take the offensive” and “prevail” against radical Islam. He would embed the current U.S. advisers in Iraq alongside local forces – though here, he added, “We do not need, and our friends do not ask for, a major commitment of American combat forces.” Isn’t this some sort of “half-measure”? Or might embedding troops (essentially turning the advisers into combat forces) escalate our involvement to a full measure, “a major commitment” – the sort of slippery slope that Obama is taking care to avoid, rightly or wrongly. And would Bush escalate the fight if mere embedding didn’t do the job? He didn’t say.
At its best this was a muddle:
He did say, “In all of this,” referring to the fight against jihadists, “the United States must engage with friends and allies, and lead again in that vital region.” Which friends and allies does he mean? The Saudis try to rope us into a savage, fruitless war against the Houthi rebels, whom it portrays as Iranian proxies. The Turks lend us an air base to step up strikes against ISIS but then use the moment of goodwill as cover to attack their bigger enemy, the Kurds, who rank as the jihadists’ most potent foe (and to whom Bush promised in his speech to send heavy armaments). ISIS derives much of its strength from the deep disunity of its natural foes, some of whom are our allies, some of whom aren’t. “Action, coordination and American leadership,” the solutions Bush calls for, are more complex than he – and many other Republicans who have never held national office seems to recognize.
And then there’s this:
As a first step to boosting American influence, Bush said he would reverse the “significant dismantling of our own military” of the past seven years, ignoring that defense spending has been on the rise and that the current budget, amounting to $620 billion, is larger than at any time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. One could argue for some sort of rejiggering in defense spending, but Bush didn’t do that.
Kaplan goes on and on. None of what Jeb said made much sense, but there’s a mythology here, but not about Ronald Reagan. At the Atlantic, Peter Beinart identifies the “fallacy of the surge” – the concept that the surge in Iraq actually won the war, and things have since fallen apart only because President Obama withdrew American troops and left everything wide open for the bad guys. Because of Obama’s timidity “Iraq collapsed, ISIS rose, and the Middle East fell apart.”
Beinart sees where this leads:
For today’s GOP leaders, this story line has squelched the doubts about the Iraq invasion that a decade ago threatened to transform conservative foreign policy. The legend of the surge has become this era’s equivalent of the legend that America was winning in Vietnam until, in the words of Richard Nixon’s former defense secretary Melvin Laird, “Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975.” In the late 1970s, the legend of the congressional cutoff – and it was a legend – Congress reduced but never cut off South Vietnam’s aid – spurred the hawkish revival that helped elect Ronald Reagan. As we approach 2016, the legend of the surge is playing a similar role – which is why it’s so important to understand that the legend is wrong.
Kevin Drum has more:
It’s not that the surge itself was a failure. Gen. David Petraeus did an admirable job of taking advantage of events on the ground, and his strategy really did reduce the violence of the civil war that had broken out. The problem is that all the surge did – and all it could do – was give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a bit of breathing space to fashion a permanent peace in the form of a political settlement with the Sunni community. He never did that, nor did we ever really put the screws on him to do it. Without that, a relapse into violence was inevitable.
As Beinart notes:
The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, began persecuting the Sunnis – thus laying the groundwork for their embrace of ISIS – long before American troops departed the country. As early as 2007, writes Emma Sky, who advised both Petraeus and his successor, General Ray Odierno, “the U.S. military was frustrated by what they viewed as the schemes of Maliki and his inner circle to actively sabotage our efforts to draw Sunnis out of the insurgency.” …
The tragedy of post-surge Iraq has its roots in America’s failure to make the Iraqi government more inclusive – a failure that began under Bush and deepened under Obama. In 2010, Sunnis, who had largely boycotted Iraq’s 2005 elections, helped give a mixed Shia-Sunni bloc called Iraqiyya two more seats in parliament than Maliki’s party won. But the Obama administration helped Maliki retain power. And Obama publicly praised him for “ensuring a strong, prosperous, inclusive, and democratic Iraq” even after he tried to arrest his vice president and other prominent Sunni leaders.
If Republicans want to blame Obama for this, fine. But Bush did the same, so they’d have to accept some of the blame themselves. If we did indeed “lose” Iraq, it was because we never took political reconciliation seriously enough, not because we had too few troops in the country.
But this won’t do. As with the Vietnam myth, the fable of the surge is mostly a political construct. Nobody who understands the actual Iraq timeline takes it seriously, but it’s a handy way of attacking Obama, and it plays well with low-information voters who figure that it’s just plain common sense that war is about military force and nothing else. As an added bonus, it plays right into the Republican theme that our military has been hollowed out by Obama and needs a Reaganesque rebuilding.
And the fact that it’s not true? Even moderate Republicans aren’t speaking up to say so. You do know there’s a presidential campaign going on, don’t you?
Everyone knows that – so Jeb wants to reanimate that corpse out here in Simi Valley. Ronald Reagan can win this next election. Unfortunately, Jeb can’t. And Ronald Reagan is still dead. The world changed that June.