Karl Rove’s Mea Culpa
The decision to ‘look forward, not back’ on Iraq was a profound mistake.
JULY 15, 2010
In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove offered a candid confession. His biggest mistake as a top White House adviser, he wrote, was to endorse the decision not to mount a vigorous defense when Democrats accused President Bush of lying the nation into the invasion of Iraq. After amply demonstrating that those who leveled this shameful charge had themselves previously insisted that Saddam was a WMD menace, Rove explains:
At the time, we in the Bush White House discussed responding but decided not to relitigate the past. That was wrong and my mistake: I should have insisted to the president that this was a dagger aimed at his administration’s heart. What Democrats started seven years ago left us less united as a nation to confront foreign challenges and overcome America’s enemies.
I like and admire Rove. Besides being whip-smart, he is a stand-up guy. It is no surprise to find him holding himself to a high standard, during what were very trying times, and concluding that he could have done things better. The country would be a better place if all of us were capable of such humility and grace. And he is surely right: “Look forward, not back,” as the policy was called, was a terrible mistake. The libel that an American president intentionally misled his country into an unnecessary war, that thousands died because “Bush lied,” deeply wounded the administration and turned our public discourse toxic.
Still, there is more to the story. The “Bush lied” slander worked because it filled a void. Yes, the failure of the Bush administration to defend the president’s integrity on the WMD question contributed mightily to the problem, but it did not cause the problem. What caused the problem was the administration’s failure to make a convincing, defensible case that military operations in Iraq were a logical and worthy extension of the war against jihadist terror.
If, instead of putting almost all its eggs in the WMD basket, the administration had tended to that case, then (a) the failure to find WMD in the anticipated quantities would not have been the public-relations catastrophe it turned out to be; (b) the claim that the administration had not been forthright in marshaling the intelligence to justify the invasion would have had much less force; and (c) there would have been strong political support for removing the regime in Iran at a point in time far more propitious than now, when the regime stands on the brink of obtaining nuclear power. Iran, as I’ve detailed, was clearly abetting al-Qaeda, was probably complicit in the 9/11 attacks (as the 9/11 Commission intriguingly intimated but failed to investigate), has a storied history of murdering Americans, has never stopped fueling anti-American terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was unquestionably ramping up its WMD programs.
The American people went to war after the 9/11 attacks because they accepted the urgency of defeating our terrorist enemies and the countries that facilitated them. Support for the war flagged when the government’s objectives parted ways from the public’s. When the Bush administration decided to highlight Iraq’s WMD, it sold too short the terror ties that were the only coherent connection to the casus belli on which the nation agreed. When the WMD did not materialize, the result of “look forward, not back” was to portray nation-building — a goal the public never agreed to — as the dominant purpose of our prohibitively costly presence in Iraq, an ungrateful Muslim country that generally despises Americans.
While the public grasped the connection between Islam and jihadist terror, the administration implausibly claimed there was no real connection, that terrorism was a perversion of Islam, the religion of peace. While the public endorsed the proposition that any government abetting jihadist terror against the United States is an enemy, the administration sat on its hands as Iran continued murdering Americans and building its nukes. It made less and less sense that we were expending blood and treasure in Iraq, whose terror ties were seen as a minimal threat to the United States; meanwhile, we were doing nothing about the mullahs in Iran, their Republican Guard, and their forward militia, Hezbollah. Tehran’s terrorist regime was understood to be implacably anti-American, yet the administration assured us it could be brought around diplomatically — even as President Bush argued that there was no point negotiating with terrorists.
Americans like me — those who vigorously support our military and the mission of defeating our enemies but are skeptical of Islamic nation-building — began asking: Even if we indulged the fantasy that we could construct sharia democracies and do it in less than a couple of generations, why should we buy in if you are (a) allowing Iran to ravage the construction project with impunity, and (b) setting the stage for Iran to dominate, if not inherit, whatever nation we manage to build? Wouldn’t the democracy project have better prospects if we defeated our enemies first? Isn’t it doomed to fail if we don’t?
Finally, the Bush administration even bought into the Left’s rhetoric. Iraq operations became “the War in Iraq,” disconnecting them in the public mind from “the War on Terror.” Al-Qaeda became “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” not the original enemy but a spontaneous insurgency generated by the invasion. The counterfactual narrative was thus set in stone: Saddam and bin Laden had had nothing to do with one another, the “Iraq War” was a one-off over WMD, and it was Bush’s invasion that brought al-Qaeda to Iraq, not the other way around.
Bush supporters were thus forced to ask another question that was every bit as political as it was practical: If the administration will not defend its rightful decision to depose Saddam as a cogent part of the war against jihadist terrorists, what is the point of our continuing to defend it? In politics, qui tacet consentit. Far from winning any new converts to the mission, “look forward, not back” encouraged the Left to defame the president and made those of us seeking to vindicate the original mission look like a lunatic fringe. A public debate can’t be won by people the public perceives as liars and outliers.
If this were mere Monday-morning quarterbacking, I’d bite my tongue. But it’s not. Six years ago, in the run-up to the 2004 election, I implored my friends in the administration to listen and respond to Sen. John Kerry’s “Iraq is a diversion” critique; to make the compelling case that Iraq was not about WMD but a part of the anti-jihadist mission; to reaffirm our resolve to take the fight to Iran or anyplace else that aided al-Qaeda; and to resist allowing the war to become an Islamic democracy-building exercise to which the public would be, at best, indifferent. These themes were repeated several times throughout President Bush’s second term (e.g., here), and mine was far from the only voice. But it was for naught.
President Bush and his advisers, including Karl Rove, are honorable men. They truly believed it was beneath the president’s dignity to get into the muck with opportunists who were despicably slandering the vital, good-faith mission in which our troops were fighting. On that score, history will be far kinder to them than today’s legacy media has been, for the reason — the record of sheer Democratic duplicity — that Rove ably recounts. Rove is quite right, though, that it was an error to rely on history. The battle needed to be joined, then and there. “Look forward, not back” failed to see that if “back” doesn’t make sense, “forward” is nowhere. And “back” was about more than President Bush’s good faith. It was about America’s good cause: a war that still has to be won.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.