Karl Rove says his biggest mistake during the Bush years was the failure to refute the “Bush lied, people died” anti-war argument. He’s right. Even though the claim was spurious on its face, it picked up steam in the popular consciousness. After a few years, this catchy slogan became the majority view of the Iraq War. Rove argues that the failure to rebut this claim was the single biggest blunder of the Bush presidency.
“We in the Bush White House discussed responding but decided not to relitigate the past. That was wrong and my mistake: I should have insisted to the president that this was a dagger aimed at his administration’s heart.”
I think good people can disagree over the Iraq War. That being said, there was a credible just-war argument to be made for the Iraq War (I ventured one here), and the Bush administration failed to make it. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled and no WMD were found, the only people talking were the war’s critics, and it was their narrative that carried the day. The national discourse on this topic from 2004-2008 was extremely frustrating. Everyone was posturing for the next election, but almost no one was having a substantive discussion about the war.
There’s enough blame to go around for both political parties. Democrats shouldn’t have been repeating the specious “Bush lied, people died” mantra, and Republicans shouldn’t have given up their just-war high ground for the cynical political calculation “not to relitigate the past.” Both sides failed to speak straightforwardly. As a result, our national conversation was debased, and the public’s understanding of the war was severely distorted.
Things have gotten a great deal better in post-surge Iraq, and we don’t hear much protesting about that war anymore. It will be interesting to see in 20 or 30 years how the history books tell the story of the Iraq War. My hunch is that story will be much different than the one that has become fixed in the minds of most Americans.
Rove’s article appears in today’s Wall Street Journal, and you can read it here. Rove made a similar confession in his recent book Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (p. 342). Also, see Douglas Feith’s 2008 essay on the Bush administration’s failure to defend the case for war against its critics.