Why Republicans learned the lessons of Iraq (better than Obama)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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So what were the lessons from Iraq, and who learned them better?

Let’s begin over at the Atlantic, where Conor Friedersdorf has a rundown of the lessons, including the realization that

“[P]lanners cannot accurately say beforehand just how long a war will last, how much it will cost, or how many Americans it might ultimately kill, even though many of them earnestly believe that their prognostication is accurate.


If Obama Administration officials had learned the right lessons from Iraq, they’d realize that what they ought to understand and explain is why intervention in Syria would be worthwhile for the U.S. even though its aftermath is inherently unpredictable. Instead they’re asking us to believe their assurances about how limited the conflict will be, even though many of them got Iraq wrong on that same metric. They talk about intervention in Syria as if they know just what will happen. That’s part of why they can’t be trusted: their delusions of control.”

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Distrusting planners ought to have been patently conservative to begin with — based on what Hayek called “the knowledge problem.” (If epistemological modesty is indicative of conservative thinking, then a deep skepticism of the soi-disant best and brightest “experts” should be an inherently conservative instinct.)

But it wasn’t — and isn’t — which is why that’s not the real reason why Republicans seem to have ironically learned more from the Iraq experience. The real reason is that Republicans are still reeling politically from what happened there.

Nothing is more instructive than a good ass-kicking, and you can trace the incredible decline of the GOP’s fortunes to the decision to invade Iraq. (Don’t get me wrong, many liberals were hurt politically by authorizing the war — see Hillary Clinton — but politically speaking, Iraq turned out to be a God-send for them.)

This, of course, is a catch-22. It’s what Peter Beinart calls “The Icarus Syndrome.” It’s always safer to be humble, but winning makes us believe we can fly closer to the sun. And so, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

For the last decade, Republicans have been forced to grapple with their mistakes in Iraq — to be more introspective. To be sure, they weren’t out there publicly engaging in a lot of self-flagellation. Democrats were more likely to talk about the GOP’s mistakes.

The simple explanation is that Iraq humbled Republicans — and emboldened Democrats.

Democrats may have learned some of these lessons intellectually, but they didn’t get burned, so they didn’t internalize them to the same degree as Republicans. (Unlike the Democrats, Republicans simply couldn’t entertain the fantasy that they might have done it better had they been in charge; they were in charge).

This probably has something to do with the current visceral rejection of Syrian intervention we are witnessing on the right. Conversely, hubris probably helps explain why prominent Democrats* — like Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Samantha Power — are so readily overlooking the potential ramifications of intervention today.

* Note: This is not to say Democrats are universally for intervention or Republicans are universally opposed. In fact, it seems most people on either side of the aisle oppose this. But putting aside the Bill Kristols of the world (who are as bellicose as ever), Republicans seem to be very opposed (and yes, this means I believe their opposition is generally sincere — and not merely meant to hurt Obama or score political points.) Meanwhile, the most important Democrats (Obama, Clinton, Kerry, et al.) are for this.