During last night's GOP debate in South Carolina, a state that is not only socially conservative but very pro-military, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump dropped a 50-megaton truth bomb on the audience:
Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake…. George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.
He also added this, in an exchange with Marco Rubio:
RUBIO: …I think you can look back in hindsight and say a couple of things, but he kept us safe. And not only did he keep us safe, but no matter what you want to say about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was in violation of U.N. resolutions, in open violation, and the world wouldn't do anything about it, and George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do.
And again, he kept us safe, and I am forever grateful to what he did for this country.
TRUMP: How did he keep us safe when the World Trade Center— the World—excuse me. I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe.
Will last night's debate be the beginning of the end of the affair between Trump and Republican voters? Various observers think so, given the billionaire's ragged performance last night, inevitably described as grouchy, cranky, and defensive.
I'm less interested in that then the fact that Trump told a Republican audience what only a few stray party loyalists have been willing to say for the better part of the 21st-century so far: Invading Iraq was indeed a mistake on the conceptual level and a failure on a practical one. Does anyone doubt that the Middle East is destabilized? Or that it has much, if not quite everything, to do with the American invasion of Iraq (and let's dispense with the fiction that there was an international "coalition of the willing")?
Republicans may want to blame Barack Obama for squandering the non-exsistent gains of the Bush-era surge and refusing to stay in Iraq rather than following the withdrawal plan brokered by Bush, but even they know deep down that the war was poorly prosecuted. In 2011, for instance, 65 percent of Republicans said they thought the war had "succeeded" (whatever that means) but by 2014, only 38 percent did. Oddly—and perhaps just out of partisan loyalty—in 2014, a majority of Republicans thought the war was justified. Democrats were less likely to think the war was justified (about 28 percent) but more thought it succeeded (38 percent).
In any case, for libertarians and independents, it's a good thing to hear a major-party candidate (a frontrunner no less!) say what is plainly true to most of us: Invading Iraq was a mistake (at best) and the war has only created more problems in a region never short on them to begin with.
Recognizing basic reality seems like a prerequisite for smarter and more-effective U.S. foreign policy and if takes Donald Trump of all people to say the unsayable, well good on him.