In a GOP debate over the weekend, Donald Trump strongly attacked the national security record of President George W. Bush, blaming him for not preventing the attacks of Sept. 11 and for lying us into a disastrous war in Iraq that has unsettled the entire Middle East.
Making such statements just before the Republican primary in South Carolina, a state with strong military ties, is quite a risk, and has once again inspired that familiar refrain of “This time, Trump went too far.”
“Everything we know about political strategy suggests that Trump’s decision to attack George W. Bush will backfire,” Curt Anderson, a GOP strategist, told Politico after the debate. “If it doesn’t backfire, then it will be official; nothing can stop him.”
So we have two questions, one about the accuracy of Trump’s attack and a second about its political consequences.
We’ve been over this ground before, and I’ll say what I always say: I’ve never been comfortable blaming Bush for 9/11. Even if he had understood the gravity of the threat and acted upon the warnings that he received, a lot of things would have had to go right to prevent those attacks from occurring. I’m not willing to dump the moral responsibility of more than 3,000 deaths on to anybody based on sheer conjecture.
However, it is simply untrue that “he kept us safe.” He did not. Those towers did come down. Those people did die. You can’t simply pretend those things did not happen.
The invasion of Iraq is a different question entirely. It cost us more than 4,000 American lives and the lives of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and it disrupted the entire Middle East, with ramifications that will echo for decades. And for that decision — the single worst foreign policy decision in American history — Bush will always bear moral responsibility. He launched a poorly conceived war of choice, and compounded that mistake by conducting that war incompetently. I don’t know how history will reach any other conclusion.
And speaking of history, there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump warned “loud and strong” against the Iraq invasion beforehand, as he claimed again in Saturday’s debate. There is no record of him doing so, and when he speaks, he’s usually quite good at making sure there’s a record of it. It simply did not happen. If he thought that at the time, he lacked the guts to say it publicly.
But back to 2016, and back to politics.
A majority of Americans now accept that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Even Jeb Bush acknowledged it was a mistake earlier in this campaign. I also think it’s safe to say that a lot of those who still nominally back the war do so out more out of a sense of party or tribal loyalty than out of an honest cost-benefit analysis, because frankly, the benefit side of that equation is non-existent. They still say they back the war because they just don’t want to admit that the other side was right, because that’s how we humans do such things. But I suspect that in most cases it is not a strongly held belief.
With his barrage on Saturday night, Trump gave those voters an opportunity to reduce the cognitive dissonance and come to grips with what happened. They weren’t being asked by some liberal, politically correct Democrat to betray their conservative tribe. This was Trump, giving them permission as conservatives to admit the truth to themselves. More importantly, this was Trump, telling them that to continue to back the war at this late date is akin to backing the Bush wing of the party, the establishment, the insiders, the people to whom previous acts of loyalty have not been rewarded.
I don’t know how well that offer is going to be received in South Carolina. But I’m fascinated to find out.