Okay, let’s talk blame for the Iraq War.

Matt Yglasias, in a smart post, says:

The main not-totally-obvious thing I have to say about this is that the underrated villains in this drama are the leading Democratic Party politicians of the 2002-2003 era. “Because trusted leaders of my political party say so” is of course not a good reason to back any political position. But the evidence is overwhelming that elite signaling and top-down leadership matter for public opinion formation. I remember quite clearly that in arguments around the dining hall people who were (rightly) opposing the invasion would (wrongly) emphasize the Bush Bush Bush factor in their arguments and I would rebut by pointing to Hillary and Bill Clinton, Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, John Kerry and John Edwards. Madeleine Albright. The whole crew

I think that’s correct if “this drama” refers to mistaken policy preferences of college-student Yglesias and others who basically mistakenly lined up on the “wrong” side – wrong not in that it was poor public policy (although I certainly agree that was the case) but wrong in the sense that they were following sensible cues which nonetheless betrayed them.

But I don’t think it’s correct in the sense that the liberals who wound up voting for the war (many with some sort of reservations, but even putting that aside) really weren’t in a position to have very much influence over whether the war would happen or not. Had mainstream liberal Democrats been solidly opposed, the resolution still passes the Senate, for example. It would have been less popular, yes, but I don’t think there’s much that Democrats, or at least mainstream liberal Democrats could have done in 2002-2003 to stop it. So, sure, those who voted for it should be held responsible, but I don’t think they’re the underrated villains.

No, to find those, I suspect we need to turn to what Yglesias says later:

On the actual policy, what holds up reasonably well from the old pre-war case is that the Clinton era “containment” policy on Iraq was crumbling. The endless sanctioning of Iraq was not a viable long-term strategy for the region. That left you with two kinds of options. One—the wrong option—was to get more aggressive. The other—the correct option—was to realize that the goal of military domination of the Persian Gulf is just fundamentally misguided. The project is motivated by fuzzy thinking about oil, and it’s been extremely costly over the decades. Protecting Kuwait from a direct and flagrantly illegal cross-border military attack is a defensible (though arguably not necessary) use of military force, but the whole rest of the undertaking dating back to long before Bush was a mistake.

I’m not sure about “crumbling”, but I would definitely agree that the GHWB-Clinton policy after the first Gulf War was extremely costly and long-run unstable.

What that points to is that the first Gulf War was a mistake — a mistake that wasn’t recognized, and still isn’t recognized, because of the almost picture-perfect execution of the policy.

George H.W. Bush and his national security/foreign policy team deserve tons of credit for managing the end of the Cold War; I think their handling of that is severely underappreciated (thanks to Democratic reluctance to praise Republicans and Republican insistence on glorifying Ronald Reagan). Given the decision to use force to kick Iraq out of Kuwait, they handled it about as well as possible. But for all that, the US wound up with a situation considerably worse than another Korea and in a worse part of the world in which to have that situation.

It wasn’t a good enough reason to go to war in 2003, but that only goes to show that when there are no good decisions one can still make a relatively worse decision.

Which means that long-term US policy in general, and the George H.W. Bush Gulf War, are really the underrated villains of the Iraq War.

At least that’s one theory. The other theory is just that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld etc. are underrated as villains because there’s a tendency to look for more complicated explanations.

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.