Rep. Tom Allen kicked off his campaign to oust Maine Republican Susan Collins from the Senate by declaring the invasion of Iraq “the worst foreign policy mistake in our nation’s history.”
Allen is generally on the right track. The invasion of Iraq certainly ranks among the worst foreign policy blunders in our history (whether it’s numero uno or somewhere else near the top would make for an interesting debate).
And the residual anger over that mistake is creating political shockwaves that are rightly putting some of the individuals responsible for it in serious electoral jeopardy. Tom Allen and others who made the right choice are rightly holding the individuals responsible for the invasion accountable.
This is all good news, but my contrarian instincts won’t let me leave well enough alone.
So what’s the problem? Most of the current Iraq debate is over troop redeployment – not the original decision to invade, which is far more strategically significant.
The decision to redeploy troops or increase troop levels is a very important tactical decision, and one of the most important issues facing people in government today. But let’s be clear: it’s nowhere near as consequential as the decision to invade in the first place.
Troop withdrawal is taking up a lot of space on the campaign trail – too much, in my opinion. Make no mistake, it’s an issue that will get many people who support a more enlightened foreign policy elected, so I can’t find too much fault with those bloggers, activists, and groups who focus on it because they are “all about winning.”
But the debate over troops in Iraq is not a proxy for foreign policy – no tactical question ever is, though some are better than others. John Bolton’s nomination had a high proxy value, which was part of why organizations like mine and individuals like Steve and I worked so hard against it.
The way current candidates for office approached the original vote to authorize war in Iraq says a lot how they each see the world, making it a reasonably good proxy. For example, based on that vote, we can learn how candidates feel about preventive war, the importance of multilateralism and international legitimacy, the latitude that should (or should not) be granted to the President, the feasibility of regime change and democratization by force, and the proper role for the military – just to name a few major questions that will come up again and again. The question of withdrawal versus surge, while important, is far less illuminating.
It’s hard to fault with candidates for speaking to this issue, especially those who support redeployment. After all, poll after poll shows that Americans want withdrawal, they want it now, and they care about it a lot.
The challenge for people running for office – especially those seeking the presidency – will be to articulate a position on Iraq clearly and within the framework of a broader vision for America’s role in the world and while answering the big questions, some of which I mentioned above. Barack Obama wins points for doing this in his first big foreign policy speech, and I’m sure he won’t be the last to get it right.
— Scott Paul