Republicans still shy away from voices who called the invasion a mistake. Photographer: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
Republicans still shy away from voices who called the invasion a mistake. Photographer: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, there was an interesting discussion among bloggers about the media, the Iraq War, and the current conflict: How should those who supported the 2003 war be treated? As Jonathan Chait cataloged, quite a few liberals encouraged the press to exclude those who got it wrong from today's debate.1

The framing of the question, however, isn’t quite right. The proper norm for the “neutral” press shouldn’t be to figure out who has a better track record of getting things right and too feature only those analysts and pundits. It should be, and most of the time is, to include “both” sides of each policy debate. (Why the scare quotes? There are always more than two sides of any debate; the norm for the nonpartisan press is to include the prominent views of political elites, which in times of strong partisan polarization likely means one Democratic and one Republican position. That is a kind of bias, but it’s “neutral” in that it is supposed to avoid explicitly partisan bias).

The real problem, then, isn’t that the media is featuring former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and the rest of the 2002 gang. The problem is that, for the most part, the Republican Party still hasn’t moved past “dead enders” and “they’re probably in Syria” and other 2003-2004 greatest hits. Or, to be more precise, the Republican foreign-policy debate these days is between the people who basically continue to believe the Iraq War was both a good idea and ultimately successful, and a minority Paulite isolationist faction.

It would be valid to compare that with the Democrats in the 1970s. A whole lot of Democrats believed that Vietnam had shown that the entire Cold War had been a mistake. Ultimately, that faction lost out to a larger group that believed that Vietnam had been poorly conceived and poorly fought, but that the Cold War was still worth fighting, albeit with new insights gleaned from the Vietnam fiasco. By 1976, almost no one with influence in the party thought Vietnam had been a success, or that the war was going just fine until the Nixon administration botched it, or even that it was basically a good idea that had suffered from poor execution. Nor were Democrats of any stripe eager to hear from the architects of Vietnam.

As far as I can tell, it is true that many Republicans consider Iraq to have been a disaster. But not only do most of the loudest voices in the party still support what happened there, but the overwhelming bulk of Republican elites whose main focus is national security and foreign policy are firmly behind the Bush administration’s 2002-2006 policy.2

There’s nothing much that the press can do about any of this. The “neutral” media can’t (and certainly shouldn’t) be picking the Republican position for the party.

In other words: this is a party story, not a press story. And it only changes if Republicans want it to change.

1 I’m oversimplifying. Some liberals think all initial war supporters should be silenced. Others think only those who haven’t taken into account what actually happened should now be ignored. And still others aren’t asking the press to do anything, but are essentially asking people who got it wrong to stop talking on the subject.

2 Yes, there is a realist internationalist group within the Republican Party that more or less opposed the Iraq War, but it was marginalized in 2002 and appears marginalized still. There’s plenty of energy among the Paulites and others who believe that Iraq revealed that the Republican foreign policy course was totally wrong, but not among those who believe that Iraq was a mistake within a generally reasonable consensus policy.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.