Neoconservatives need to escape from Iraq

Jeremy Lott

There were many cheerleaders for America’s invasion of and continued involvement in Iraq but none more enthusiastic than neoconservative intellectuals. Take Bill Kristol, for instance, son of Irving Kristol, the man who first gave the term “neoconservatism” any concrete meaning.

The founder and editor of the Weekly Standard testified before the Senate in 2002 that “removing Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power would be a genuine opportunity ... to transform the political landscape of the Middle East.” Kristol predicted the “rewards would be very great,” including an “isolated” Iran, a “cowed” Syria, a Saudi Arabia with “much less leverage” and Palestinians who would be “more willing to negotiate seriously with Israel.”

Granted, we all make awful predictions at some point. Yet neoconservatives seem unusually attached to their Iraq whopper. It is hurting their credibility on foreign policy, for good reason. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a catastrophe of extra large proportions, with thousands of American troops dead, tens of thousands wounded and trillions of dollars in costs. Strongman Saddam Hussein was removed and hanged, replaced with a weak government that couldn’t stand up on its own against a group of jihadists who thought al-Qaida wasn’t hardcore enough.

Some neoconservatives are trying to pin this on President Obama. He left Iraq too early, they say, or opposed it in the first place or apologized too much. He called ISIS “the JV team.” But Obama’s mishandling of much Middle Eastern foreign policy doesn’t come close to exonerating the folks who did so much to get us deeper into the mess.

Most of the worst mistakes of the Obama administration were defended or championed by neoconservatives. Many conservatives defended his intervention in Libya and cheered for him to take the fight to Syria, and were OK with the U.S. government funding different proxy armies that ended up going to war with each other.

These actions of the Obama administration helped to give ISIS a better purchase in the greater Middle East. Among the rebels in Syria is where the group scored its first victories before rolling next door into Iraq. Libya is now fertile soil for both al-Qaida and ISIS. And an emboldened ISIS only encourages America to send more bombs and, surreptitiously, more boots back into land that we just spend plenty of blood and treasure liberating.

Even if we were to grant neoconservatives a mulligan after Iraq, they’ve made it clear their foreign policy judgment is stubborn. They continue to advocate for wars and interventions without balancing them against any consideration of America’s concrete national interests, largely to fill in the hole that they helped dig in the first place.

As for their enthusiasm for toppling strongmen in the region, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick showed why that was a bad idea way back in 1979 with an essay in the flagship neoconservative magazine Commentary titled “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”

Kirkpatrick argued that by promoting a “human rights” ideology above almost all else, and by refusing to cut deals with many of the less-than-savory strongmen who actually run nations, President Carter was hurting America’s position in the world and hurting many people in those non-democratic countries to boot. That her intellectual heirs went all-in for an essentially Carterite foreign policy is depressing.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.