Few issues have hung over U.S. politics like the Iraq War. Republican foreign policy has been defined by it, and Democrats have had to answer for their vote in favor of the invasion, which is now widely considered to be one of the country’s biggest mistakes in modern times.
The 2020 election could be a break from this history. It could be the first presidential election without the politics of the Iraq War, with nominees who don’t have the baggage of a pro-war vote and foreign policy debates that aren’t defined by the 2003-2011 conflict. But as Democrats move away from that front, they’re struggling to find a new voice on foreign policy.
Democratic politicians, and much of the rest of the country, are now united around the idea that America should not have invaded Iraq in 2003. From fabricated intelligence, a media and political establishment that largely accepted the administration’s spin, unrealistic expectations, poor planning and a culture of militarization, the affair became a cautionary tale of what happens when the public ― and more importantly, the people who are supposed to represent them in Washington ― sleepwalk their way through foreign policy and let politics dictate war.
But it wasn’t always this way. A majority of the Democratic caucus in the Senate sided with all but one Republican in authorizing the invasion. Some of them believed the George W. Bush administration’s case for war. More knew it was a bad idea but were afraid to speak out in that post-Sept. 11 era.
“It was done out of fear of being accused of being soft on terrorism,” said former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who was one of the 22 Democrats in the chamber who voted against the war. “The completely phony notion that Saddam Hussein had been tied to al Qaeda had been thrown around the country, and frankly, people did not vote their conscience. They voted politics.”
Iraq’s Dominance In Presidential Elections
In the first few years after the invasion, people started to change their minds about the war. The weapons of mass destruction Bush warned about didn’t exist, and the fighting dragged on long after he declared “mission accomplished” in May 2003. The progressive group MoveOn.org, which had advocated against the invasion, saw its membership skyrocket between 2002 and 2004.
“It was just out of nowhere,” recalled Eli Pariser, who was running MoveOn’s Iraq War campaign at the time. “There were thousands and thousands of people meeting all around the country. That was the first moment I felt like this was striking a much bigger chord than I thought.”
But the anti-Iraq War shift wasn’t enough to fully make an impact in the 2004 presidential election. Bush was re-elected, still riding the wave of patriotic fervor, while the Democratic Party struggled to come up with a compelling, convincing alternative to the war.
The 2006 midterm elections were completely different. The left, by this time, was gaining momentum around the idea that it was time to withdraw from Iraq. Progressive organizations on the ground were working with unions; think tanks like the Center for American Progress; and Democratic leaders in Congress to shift opinions both within the party and in the general public.
A key piece of the strategy was making hawks within the Democratic Party pay. Progressives ousted Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the party’s 2000 vice presidential nominee, in the Democratic primary that cycle. (The senator went on to win re-election as in independent.) But Tom Matzzie, another MoveOn veteran who also ran the coalition Americans Against Escalation In Iraq, said he still considered what happened a victory.
“For our political purposes, that almost didn’t matter,” Matzzie said of Lieberman’s win in the general election. “Every Democrat in Congress saw what happened and didn’t want that to happen to them ... The Lieberman primary really energized people across the country around the idea that this effort will take back the House and Senate in 2006.”
And they did. Democrats swept the midterms, knocking Republicans out of power in both chambers of Congress. Two critics of the war, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), took control as the leaders of the House and Senate.
By 2008, opposition to the Iraq War was firmly established in the party and was perhaps the major reason that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) lost to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) ― who was not in the Senate in 2002 but had spoken out against invasion. In the general election, Obama against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was one of the biggest hawks in Congress.
I don’t think the Iraq War is going to be terribly important in 2020. Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)
The war also played a role in the 2016 presidential elections, albeit a smaller one. Clinton remained haunted by the problems from 2008, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) occasionally used her Iraq vote against her.
The war arguably had a bigger effect on the Republican side. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, widely considered the front-runner for the nomination, stumbled early in the race when he was unable to give a straight answer about whether he thought his brother’s war was a mistake.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, vocally called the war a mistake and claimed that he was publicly against the invasion from the beginning ― even though there is no evidence that he was.
Fresh Start In 2020
The 2020 election is still two years away, but the Democrats most often talked about as potential candidates ― people like Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) ― largely have political careers that started after the 2003 invasion.
And for the contenders whose careers do intersect with the war, there’s little indication that it will be a major issue if they run.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) voted to extend funding of the war in 2007, which was a break from most members of the party at the time. Former Vice President Joe Biden, another potential 2020 candidate, voted for the war, but he has disavowed his support and said it was a mistake.
Feingold said that he believes enough time has passed that the Democratic Party has a chance to have a clean slate.
“Democrats are going to say, ’Look, this is a new era. We’ve got to get this right,’” he said, adding, “That, I think, is the best approach. I don’t think the Iraq War is going to be terribly important in 2020.”
“After 9/11, the consensus among party elites was that you had to be pro-war,” Matzzie, the MoveOn veteran, said. “That consensus is totally shattered. The consensus is now, for a Democrat, that you can’t be the super pro-war hawk or you’re in danger inside the Democratic Party.”
As Iraq has faded as an issue for the party, Democrats have largely returned to talking about domestic and economic issues. In part, it’s because the country is focused there, but it’s also because these are the areas where Democrats have traditionally felt the strongest.
But many veterans of the Iraq fights worry that the party is giving up valuable ground in the national security arena that it was able to gain over the past 15 years ― making clear that strength doesn’t have to equal military might and that Republicans aren’t the only party that can be trusted on foreign policy. Officials haven’t offered clear alternatives to what Trump is doing that the party has been able to unify around.
“We’re struggling,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a veteran who is emerging as a leading foreign policy voice the party.
“We need to talk about what a strong national security policy means,” he said. “For too long, Democrats have just been talking about watering down our national security position or saying that we need to invest in national security ― but not too much.”
During the Iraq War, Democrats coalesced around the need to withdraw, spurred in large part by an influential report from the Center for American Progress. The report called for “strategic redeployment” ― a proposal to draw down troops from Iraq and redistribute them to other locations. It offered a progressive alternative to the Bush approach, arguing that the war was hurting military readiness and draining resources away from true national security threats.
It wasn’t just “cut and run” ― it was an actual plan for how to withdraw and redeploy.
The plan gave Democrats something to cite when Republicans charged that they had no path forward and no alternative to what Bush was doing in Iraq. It was influential with lawmakers like Rep. John Murtha, a conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania who shook up the national debate when he gave a speech calling for withdrawal in November 2005. Murtha, who served in the Marines Corps for 37 years, was the first Vietnam combat veteran elected to Congress who became one of the most powerful lawmakers on defense issues.
“Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course,” he said at the time.
Democrats who needed cover to come out against the war, who were afraid of being called weak, now had a protector. When Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said “thank God” Murtha was not in Congress for World War II, because otherwise “we would be here speaking Japanese or German,” Murtha was able to rebuke him in a way few other people could.
“Were you there?” Murtha responded. “Were you in Vietnam? Were you in Iraq?”
Gohmert admitted he had not fought in any of those locations.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and one of the authors of the strategic redeployment report, says part of the problem now is that Trump is so good at distracting people that it’s hard to get the left unified around one issue or one position.
“The Trump agenda on foreign policy is so potentially cataclysmic and disastrous,” he said. “We’re all like Pavlov’s dogs ― he does one thing and distracts us. We take our eye off the ball on huge issues.”
Looking For Alternatives
Right now, when Democrats talk about foreign policy, they tend to emphasize diplomacy and steadiness as a contrast to Trump hollowing out the State Department and tweeting recklessly, for example.
“I think Democrats are not afraid of using the military and certainly are supportive of [utilizing] the military,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran. “But we first and foremost understand that the primary tool of our foreign policy should be diplomacy, not military expeditions.”
But Democrats haven’t been able to unify in opposition even when it comes to responding to Trump’s foreign policy. In April 2017, when Trump launched missile strikes on Syria, many Democrats said they were furious that he didn’t involve Congress in the decision, saying what he did may be “unconstitutional.” Their objections were to the process ― in the end, they seemed to concede that the strikes themselves were the right thing to do anyway.
There are attempts by some prominent members of the party to talk more about foreign policy. Sanders, who has built his reputation by focusing obsessively on domestic economic issues, gave a high-profile foreign policy speech in September that attempted to tie his core policies to national security. It reframed the debate away from terrorism and whether to go to war and argued that there needs to be a holistic approach to what’s happening the world.
“What foreign policy also means is that if we are going to expound the virtues of democracy and justice abroad, and be taken seriously, we need to practice those values here at home,” Sanders said. “That means continuing the struggle to end racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia here in the United States and making it clear that when people in America march on our streets as neo-Nazis or white supremacists, we have no ambiguity in condemning everything they stand for.”
But speeches like this are usually more about vision, not about specifics. And many progressives acknowledge that the party needs to communicate more details and a clearer alternative. As Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of “The Nation” magazine, wrote in 2017, “Where is the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren of foreign policy? Many Democrats are positioning themselves to take on Trump four years from now. They’d be wise to seek leadership by demonstrating it.”
“The Democrats have a chance to offer [an alternative] again against someone who’s even worse than George Bush in these respects,” Feingold said. “So I’m looking forward to people getting out there and starting to talk about this. I think it would be a mistake to think about only domestic issues, as important as they are, because Donald Trump is unbelievably unqualified to handle foreign policy.”
Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan, who both held top foreign policy positions in President Barack Obama’s administration, have started a new group, National Security Action, intended to be a political strike force to respond to Trump. It won’t be developing new policies, but it will connect the media, Democratic politicians and other groups with experts in this area and, they hope, get more traction for the progressive plans that do exist.
“There is a clear alternative, in that I think Democrats believe that we need to use military force when necessary, but we also need to exhaust diplomatic options to prevent conflicts or resolve conflicts,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes noted that there is often a vacuum for a political party that emerges from eight years in the White House and now has no clear leader.
The consensus is now, for a Democrat, that you can’t be the super pro-war hawk or you’re in danger inside the Democratic Party. Tom Matzzie, former head of Americans Against Escalation In Iraq
That’s where people like Moulton and Duckworth hope some veterans will be able to step in, perhaps playing a role like Murtha. There are also at least 25 veterans running for Congress as Democrats this year.
“That is a role that I and other Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the Democratic Party can play,” Duckworth said. “To say, ’Wait a minute, let’s just be clear,′ questioning the motives of the administration and questioning the veracity of the data that they’re presenting, does not make us weak on defense. If anything it makes us the stronger champions for the Department of Defense and the military.”
Since Sept. 11 and the Iraq War, the issues in foreign policy have gotten more diffuse ― and, in many ways, more complicated, in the sense that the public doesn’t know what side to take. Current issues like drones and operations in Syria and Yemen aren’t on the top of most people’s list.
People now seem to understand that going to war in Iraq was a bad idea. But many Democrats wonder if politicians, both on the Republican and Democratic side, have fully internalized why it was a bad idea and shed the mindset that led to supporting the invasion.
And if there were a vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq again today, Moulton said he’s absolutely worried Congress would do it all over again.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Obama defeated McCain in 2012 rather than 2008.