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A Decade Later, Republicans Still Don't Understand Iraq

Republicans have something to gain from recasting the gruesome waste of blood and treasure the U.S. poured into Iraq as a success story that President Obama ruined.
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As the U.S. ceaselessly moves towards yet another large-scale conflict in the Middle East, hawks in Congress are already screeching that the current U.S. strategy to destroy Islamic State just isn't bold enough. Instead of planes and air-to-surface missiles, they insist, Obama should be deploying a small army.

But all of the people itching to send ground troops back into Iraq and possibly -- oh, if they may dream! -- invade Syria have two things in common. Aside from being disastrously wrong about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they all have something to gain from recasting the gruesome waste of blood and treasure the U.S. poured into Iraq as a success story that President Obama personally ruined by ending the war in 2011.

The Wall Street Journal has a rundown of the usual culprits calling for rapid escalation, and here's a sordid reminder of just how wrong each of them is:

"It is our fight. It is not just their fight," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said Sunday on Fox News Sunday. He said Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, will eventually attack the U.S. unless it is stopped. "They are planning to come here. To destroy ISIL, you have to kill or capture their leaders ... The president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed at home."

This isn't the first time Graham has prophesied doom; here's what he said about Iraq in 2003:

"[Saddam has] failed to account for 26,000 liters of anthrax that we knew he was in possession of in 1998. He failed to account for 1.5 tons of VX nerve agent that could kill millions of people. He failed to account for 550 artillery shells with mustard gas ... we need to get on with the idea of disarming him and having a regime change, because it's in our national interest."

Those WMDs didn't exist. The "regime change" just ushered in an ineffective American puppet state. So maybe Graham's claim that U.S. ground troops are necessary to keep Islamic State from killing us all is a little suspect.

Moving on, here's former George H.W. Bush Secretary of State James Baker on Meet the Press:

"I'm not suggesting we need to get into another ground war in the Middle East. I'm just saying we cannot do this without having some forces on the ground that can help our air campaign ... You can’t do this with just air power."

In 2002, Baker argued in The New York Times that the only way to topple Saddam was "the application of military force, including sufficient ground troops to occupy the country (including Baghdad), depose the current leadership and install a successor government." That worked out well! By the way, that was before The Nation revealed that Baker held conflicting interests during his Bush-appointed tenure managing Iraqi debt.

On Fox News Sunday, Bush-era CIA director Mike Hayden made similar recommendations :

"Air power won’t be sufficient. When you just rely on airpower, people don't doubt your strength, they doubt your intention."

In 2006, Hayden gave a little-noticed speech acknowledging that the Iraq War was inspiring jihadism, but claiming the coming U.S. victory would more than erase their gains. Two years later, Baker triumphantly told The Washington Post that Dubya had beaten back the insurgent threat:

"On balance, we are doing pretty well ... Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally -- and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' -- as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."

Al-Qaeda was not actually all that close to strategic defeat, launching successful attacks in 2013 that freed hundreds of battle-hardened prisoners from Iraqi jails. Rather than going away, al-Qaeda in Iraq underwent an internal power struggle and transformed into ISIS.

But there's one thing Hayden conveniently leaves out: al-Qaeda didn't exist in Iraq before 2003. Until the U.S. deposed its government, created a catastrophic power vacuum and openly challenged extremists to "bring it on," Iraq didn't harbor radical Islamic groups. Today, ISIS has thousands of angry, well-trained foreign fighters versed in asymmetric warfare, and America has 4,489 pointlessly empty seats at the dinner table during the holidays. Hayden's call for renewed ground troops in Iraq look a lot like trying to get rid of a hornet's nest by repeatedly jabbing it with your fingers.

Other prominent armchair generals clamoring for another U.S. ground invasion include Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Bob Corker  (R-Tenn.). The former notoriously referred to the thousands of Americans killed or wounded in Iraq as a "small price to pay" for imperial American goals in the Middle East, while a leaked memo from his office obtained by Think Progress in 2006 repeatedly told colleagues to stress the non-existent Iraq-9/11 link.  The latter borrowed and then distanced himself from President Bush's "stay the course" phraseology and grilled Obama so harshly on his previous refusals to arm the Syrian opposition that the POTUS told him he was full of "horseshit." To this day, Corker maddeningly believes that Islamic State threatens "to completely undo the progress of years of U.S. sacrifice" instead of the reality that years of U.S. sacrifice created it.

Finally, there's John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is probably the most dangerous of the bunch. While a President McCain would have never left Iraq, actual McCain is pretty busy erasing the distinction. He successfully hedged the White House into admitting ground troops weren't off the table this week and is pressuring the GOP's anti-intervention wing to flip in favor of war. If boots do hit the ground, it will be in large part because McCain wants them there.

To be clear, a lot of Democrats are for amplifying the U.S. effort against Islamic State, and ostensibly liberal 2016 front-runners like Hillary Clinton are rushing to be the hawkiest. Most of them are wrong, too. But please don't forget that the Republicans most loudly demanding we go another round were some of the peppiest cheerleaders during our 8-year losing streak.

Unfortunately, that's exactly the reason that Americans are being fed so much chest-thumping, pro-war rhetoric right now: a lot of powerful people have an interest in promoting the narrative that the War in Iraq was all but won until President Obama and his meddling Dems. That's a very dangerous notion, one which may get many American personnel killed or maimed in a land very far from home. The U.S. has more choices in Iraq than doubling down or doubling down with ground troops. Given how quickly mission creep has already overtaken the White House, pretending otherwise may quickly result in a lot of bombs, body bags and tears.