How Iraq war is helping Trump
As Donald Trump has continued to rack up US presidential primary victories, he has taken positions that many Republicans consider beyond the pale. One of these is his harsh criticism of the Iraq war and his labelling former president George W. Bush a “liar” for claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Ever since he entered the presidential race last summer, Trump has criticised the 2003 war as a foreign policy disaster that destabilised the Middle East.
Just before the South Carolina Republican primary, Trump went even further in his disparaging remarks when he said about Bush and his team: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none and they knew there were none.
“We spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives… Obviously it was a mistake… George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilised the Middle East.”
And in a subsequent television interview when asked whether his denunciation of Bush, who supposedly remained popular in South Carolina, would hurt his chances to win the state’s primary, Trump responded by saying the people of South Carolina are “smart”. “I think they’re rejecting the war in Iraq. They understand that the war in Iraq… was a disaster,” he said.
Trump was clearly using the Iraq war to weaken his then rival Jeb Bush, who has changed his position several times on that conflict, and to demonstrate that he would not be intimidated by having members of the Bush family, including George W. Bush and his mother, campaign for Jeb in the state.
Some political pundits and Republican Party strategists predicted that going after George W. Bush in a personal way would hurt Trump politically but when the votes for South Carolina were tallied, Trump won with 32.5% of the vote; Jeb Bush came in fourth with 7.8%. The loss was so devastating for Bush that he dropped out of the presidential race the next day.
Why did this bashing of George W. Bush and the Iraq war succeed?
First, Trump has protected himself by being very supportive of war veterans and said that, if elected, he would do more to help veterans.
Second, he instinctively knew that Americans understand the differences between good and bad wars: Good wars lead to victories whereas bad wars lead to uncertain or bad outcomes.
With the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the collapse of the Iraqi army in the summer of 2014, many Americans came to believe that all the blood and treasure that were spent in Iraq came to nothing. And they differentiated between supporting the troops and getting bogged down in a quagmire.
Trump’s appeal is not just his reprehensible demagoguery but also his plain speaking on certain issues. According to a poll, 77% of South Carolina Republicans asked said “telling it like it is” is their top quality in a candidate.
An analysis of the Jeb Bush campaign in the Washington Post noted that Bush “ran a campaign, whether deliberate or not, that was rooted in the past”.
Trump’s sharp criticism of the Iraq war does not mean he is opposed to military action. He has said on the campaign trail that the United States must go after the Islamic State (ISIS) because it is a direct threat to the US homeland. He has also suggested that he would oppose getting bogged down in a costly repeat of the Iraq war.
Trump is thus differentiating himself from hawks within the Republican Party, including one of his main rivals, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. In the South Carolina debate, Rubio went out of his way to defend George W. Bush, especially his role after 9/11. Such a position may have helped Rubio win a narrow second place position in that state’s primary because he appealed to hawks but he still ended up far behind Trump.
Even in the Democratic Party contest, US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a strong critic of the Iraq war for more than 13 years, continued to score points with the party’s base even if Hillary Clinton still has more delegates. Her advantage is not because of the Iraq war (as a US senator, she voted for the war in 2002, which she has since called a mistake) but because she has strong links to minority voters on domestic issues.
There appears to be a strong bipartisan consensus in US politics that the Iraq war of 2003 was not only a “bad” war but one that should never be repeated.