The Iraq War and American Politics, Take 2

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 9:03 PM PDT

A couple of days ago, Ross Douthat wrote a column arguing that the Iraq War had a transformational effect on American politics. I argued back that in the Obama Era, our foreign policy has changed little, while our domestic policy has changed a lot:

To believe that Iraq was responsible for this, you have to adopt the perverse view that a huge foreign policy failure was responsible for (a) a continuation of that very foreign policy, but (b) a repudiation of Bush’s completely unrelated domestic policy. That doesn’t strike me as very plausible.

Douthat responds:

Actually, it strikes me as quite plausible indeed. Post-Cold War American foreign policy has almost always featured more continuity than change from administration to administration, and this has held true even after failed or mismanaged wars. Presidents and parties may be punished at the polls, but grand strategy is rarely altered there: The same elites keep circulating, the same programs and alliances and commitments continue, the same basic ideas about America’s role in the world endure....Obama got us out of Iraq in just one [term]...and that was all that was explicitly expected of him: Ending the occupation was the break with the Bush era that the public wanted, and with that accomplished it’s not surprising that the Obama White House would continue Bush’s second-term policies on other fronts, or that the public would more or less accepted this continuity.

This is a reasonable point. For all the sound and fury, U.S. foreign policy is a pretty bipartisan affair and has been for a long time. Democrats and Republicans share most of the same basic framework about America's role in the world, with only modest changes of emphasis from one administration to the next. So Obama's continuity with Bush's foreign policy is hardly a surprise.

But you still need to make the case that Iraq had a transformative effect on American domestic policy. So what was it? Yes, the liberal blogosphere was initially energized by the war, but the plain truth is that the blogosphere's bark was always bigger than its bite. At a policy level, Obama staffed his economic team largely with familiar faces from the Clinton administration and followed their Clintonian advice. He passed a healthcare bill that was more conservative than Clinton's. He passed a financial reform bill that progressives almost universally derided as too limited. He repealed DADT, but that was obviously the end result of a long-term trend that was decades in the making.

No, what's really startling about Obama is that given everything he inherited—the Iraq War, the financial collapse, a scandal-plagued Republican Party, huge majorities in Congress—his "era" lasted a scant 24 months. He got a fair amount done in that 24 months, but as progressive revolutions go, it was a mighty short one.

Obviously we can't turn back the clock and see what would have happened without the war, but I simply don't see the transformative changes Douthat does. He makes a comparison with the domestic political consequences of the Vietnam era—"the hastened crack-up of the New Deal coalition, the birth of neoconservatism in its intellectual and popular forms, the undercutting of Great Society liberalism just as the grand welfare state project seemed about to be completed"—but this is telling mostly because he's right about Vietnam. It did have a huge impact. The Iraq War has had nothing like that. We got 24 months of modest liberal progress, and that's it.

Without the war, that progress would have been different. Maybe smaller. That's true. I don't want to argue the absurd proposition that Iraq had no effect on American politics. But considering what a debacle it was, I've mainly been gobsmacked at just how little effect it's had. Hell, as near as I can tell, the American public isn't really even war weary. If Obama declared war on Iran (after a suitable period of saber rattling, of course), I think the public would be on his side. And if the Iraq War hasn't even made us war weary, what are the odds that the rest of its impact has been more than minimal?

POSTSCRIPT: Let me put this another way. Suppose you slept through the past dozen years and woke up today. Somebody told you that we had a big financial collapse in 2007-08; a Democrat won the presidency; he passed a stimulus bill to pull us out of economic collapse; finally passed a version of healthcare reform; passed some other liberal legislation; and then lost big in the 2010 midterms. Would any of that—or anything else you learned about—make you shake your head in amazement and figure that you must have missed something? Like, say, a long and bitter overseas war? I don't think so. It would all seem like politics as usual.

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