WASHINGTON — A dozen years later, American politics has reached a rough consensus about the Iraq war: It was a mistake.
Politicians hoping to be president rarely run ahead of public opinion. So it is a revealing moment when major contenders for president in both parties find it best to say that 4,491 Americans and countless Iraqis died in a war that should not have been waged.
Many people have been saying that for years, of course. Polls show most of the public have judged the war a failure by now. Over time, more GOP politicians have allowed that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq undermined Republican President George W. Bush’s rationale for the 2003 invasion.
It hasn’t been an easy evolution for those such as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who voted in 2002 to authorize the use of US troops in Iraq while serving in Congress. That vote, and her refusal to fully disavow it, cost her during her 2008 primary loss to Barack Obama, who was not in the Senate in 2002 but had opposed the war.
In her memoir last year, Clinton wrote that she had voted based on the information available at the time, but ‘‘I got it wrong. Plain and simple.’’
What might seem a hard truth for a nation to admit has become the safest thing for an American politician to say — even Bush’s brother.
The fact that Jeb Bush, a likely candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016, was pressured this past week into rejecting, in hindsight, his brother’s war ‘‘is an indication that the received wisdom, that which we work from right now, is that this was a mistake,’’ said Evan Cornog, a historian and dean of the Hofstra University school of communication. Or, as Rick Santorum, another possible GOP candidate, put it: ‘‘Everybody accepts that now.’’
Santorum did not always see the war that way. He voted for the invasion as a senator and continued to support it for years. Last week, he mocked Jeb Bush’s reluctance to give what now seems the obvious answer when he was initially asked to reconsider the war in light of what’s known today. ‘‘I don’t know how that was a hard question,’’ Santorum said.
It’s an easier question for presidential hopefuls who are not bound by family ties or their own congressional vote for the war, who have the luxury of judging it in hindsight, knowing full well the terrible price Americans paid and the continuing bloodshed in Iraq.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz weren’t in Congress in 2002 and so didn’t have to make a real-time decision.
Neither was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or Ohio Governor John Kasich, who served an earlier stint in Congress.
All these Republicans said last week that, in hindsight, they would not have invaded Iraq with what’s now known about the intelligence that wrongly indicated Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in an interview Sunday on CBS’s ‘‘Face the Nation,’’ put it this way: ‘‘Knowing what we know now, I think it’s safe for many of us, myself included, to say, we probably wouldn’t have taken’’ that approach.
Rubio, in a long exchange on ‘‘Fox News Sunday,’’ tried to navigate the Iraq shoals once again, making a glass-half-full case that while the war was based on mistaken intelligence, the world still is better off with Hussein gone.
Those politicians didn’t go as far, however, as war critics such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a declared Republican candidate who says it would have been a mistake even if Hussein were hiding such weapons. Paul said Hussein served as a counterbalance to Iran and removing him from power led to much of the turmoil now rocking the Middle East.