To the horror of almost everyone in mainstream US politics, it seems increasingly likely that by the close of the Republican National Convention in July, Donald Trump will have snatched the prize he has long coveted: the Republican presidential nomination. The party’s leadership is no longer asking whether Trump can win, but whether he can be stopped.
Although quickly lost among the string of controversies that have punctuated his campaign, in late February Buzzfeed released a 2002 radio interview with Howard Stern, who asked Trump whether he supported Saddam’s overthrow. “Yeah, I guess so,” replied Trump.
Trump has long-maintained that he was firmly against the Iraq War. But the suspicion that he has exaggerated his opposition to the conflict has surfaced more than once. After the second GOP debate in September 2015, in which he proclaimed himself “the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq”, Trump’s public statements on the invasion have been extensively chronicled.
To his credit, he did flippantly decry the war “a mess” less than a week into combat operations. But the Stern interview was significant because it confirmed that he did in fact publicly support the war until after US forces had invaded the country.
But in keeping with the brazen political opportunism that’s coloured his entire campaign, this reality has not stopped him from attempting to leverage his supposed record of opposition to the war.
In a debate in New Hampshire, he held up this version of events as testament to his strategic foresight. When asked whether he had the appropriate temperament to be commander-in-chief, he replied: “Remember this, I’m the only one up here … that said, ‘don’t go, don’t do it, you’re going to destabilise the Middle East’.” At a town hall ten days later, Trump pushed this narrative further. The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq was “one of the worst decisions in the history of the country”.
In October 2002, a month after Trump’s interview with Howard Stern, Barack Obama, then Illinois state senator denounced the Bush Administration’s “dumb war” in Iraq. Throughout his 2007-8 Democratic primary race against (primarily) Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Obama consistently drew reference to his longstanding opposition to the conflict.
As with Trump, arguably, this strategy was meant not only to demonstrate Obama’s national security acumen – a particularly acute concern given his lack of any executive experience – but to discredit his more politically experienced opponents, too. In a January 2008 campaign address, Hillary Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote authorising the invasion underpinned his call for “new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq”.
Why it matters
Unlike Obama in 2007, Donald Trump is almost a complete unknown when it comes to national security. While he has at last named his core foreign policy advisors, he has yet to articulate anything resembling a comprehensive national security and foreign policy worldview.
In the case of Islamic State, the key foreign policy challenge in Iraq today, his position has been muddled to say the least. He has vacillated between threatening to “bomb the shit out of” the terror network on the one hand and proposing to let the Russians fight them in Syria on the other. While it may sound attractive to sympathetic ears, his more consistent call to “get the oil, take the oil, keep the oil” smacks of the same fantasy which underpinned George W. Bush’s 2003 clam that, “Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation”.
Leaving this issue to one side, this perhaps surprising parallel with Obama’s 2007 primary race has been consistently overlooked in the various commentaries written on Trump’s (inflated) opposition to the Iraq War.
True, the comparison can only be pushed so far. Ted Cruz, Trump’s primary Republican rival, was not complicit in the 2002 senate vote in support of the Iraq War, whereas both Obama’s main 2008 rivals had been. Likewise, in contrast to Trump’s confused remarks on IS, Obama proposed a clear alternative to the administration’s prevailing strategy on Iraq during his presidential race: to bring US troops home.
Nevertheless, if Trump clinches the GOP nomination and faces Hillary Clinton in the general election, expect “the Donald” to hark back to one of the major planks of Obama’s 2007 campaign and start attacking her for her Iraq vote. While Obama may openly ridicule Trump’s campaign, on one issue at least, the two have more than a little in common.