Iraq war remains politically fateful, 12 years on

A dozen years after the invasion of Iraq, it continues to cast a shadow over the 2016 presidential campaigns in both major parties. Republican and Democratic candidates alike who took opposing positions on it in 2003 can anticipate partisan demands that they hash over again the controversial adventure whose ramifications remain at the core of American foreign policy.

In the GOP, establishment candidate Jeb Bush, whose brother as president launched the war based on the mistaken contention that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, has a quandary. Is it wise to use his family members and name to rescue a campaign stalled in the polls?


Earlier this week, amid announced staff cutbacks, his campaign recruited the two former President Bushes for a two-day strategy and fund-raising meeting in Houston to assess how to snap out of the doldrums. The hope is that George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq will somehow recede in memory.

But real estate mogul and non-politician Donald Trump has singled out Jeb, the former governor of Florida, as his prime target in taking on the Republican establishment, using "Bush's war" against him and noting that Mr. Trump himself was against the invasion from the start.


On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who as a senator for New York voted to authorize use of force in Iraq, was pointedly criticized for it in the first Democratic debate by former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

Mr. Webb's opposition to the Iraq war seemed to position him to be a prime challenger to the frontrunner for 2016 presidential candidacy. But in his brief run this year, he made hardly a splash on that or any other issue. Both he and Mr. Chafee have since dropped out of the race, but Sen. Bernie Sanders, hot on Ms. Clinton's tail in the polls, also voted against the Iraq invasion authorization as a Vermont congressman, and his zealous antiwar advocates may well take up the protest.

One of Hillary Clinton's greatest difficulties with the liberal branch of her party in her failed 2008 presidential campaign was that vote on the war, which she later said was a mistake. Her chief Democratic rival then, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, was not in the Senatewhen that vote was taken, but he made political hay in calling it "a dumb war" and vowing to end it.

As president, Mr. Obama has withdrawn most American combat forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan, but the fighting goes on with residual U.S. troops present. Ms. Clinton in recent months has sounded more hawkish in some aspects as she campaigns to become the American commander in-chief in the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, critics of the invasion of Iraq continue to argue that Mr. Bush's 2003 invasion was a harmful diversion of American policy and military resources from the clearly justifiable war in Afghanistan, fought in retaliation against the attacks of 9/11 by the al-Qaida terrorists harbored there. One way or another, the Bush name and the Iraq war itself have become politically toxic as the nation weighs its choice roughly a year from now.

Amid all the military turmoil, the emergence of a newly self-declared Islamic State embroiled in a civil war in Syria against dictator Bashar al-Assad finds America entrapped in yet another foreign military engagement. Even so, the preliminaries of the 2016 political campaign have focused so far on the dysfunction of the national government and on the "outsiders" in both parties -- Donald Trump, Ben Carson and former business executive Carly Fiorina among the Republicans, and Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist running under the Democratic banner.

Mr. Trump's only nod to foreign policy has been, in character, to boast that he would be a "great" leader of a beefed-up U.S. military and a deal-maker with the experience to get along with the Russians' Vladimir Putin.

As for the Democrats, Vice President Joe Biden in declining to enter the race pointedly pressed Ms. Clinton, Mr. Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to campaign on the Obama legacy, including its foreign policy of ambiguous direction right now, with little indication he is being heard in this increasingly pointless campaign clamor.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is