Go back ten years, and if you were in the GOP and called that war a mistake, you were called an isolationist – or worse. I saw it firsthand here in Washington, DC, time and time again.
However, it was a change in direction that was demanded for over a decade at the grassroots – and by many Americans across the nation, especially in flyover country and rural areas – that allowed Donald Trump to rise.
In fact, I would argue it was this nearly forgotten challenge of the GOP national security establishment that helped, to a great extent, propel Donald Trump to the GOP nomination in 2016 and even helped make him president.
In fact, I can boil it down to one moment: the 2016 GOP South Carolina primary in February of that year. Watch the video above; it really shows two completely different schools of thinking on GOP foreign policy. And remember Jeb? I don’t.
It was then that Donald Trump destroyed Jeb Bush in a heated national security exchange. GOP and now MAGA voters clearly think Donald Trump won that debate and set the course of his future.
Here is a sample of what Trump said:
“I’m the only one on this stage that said, “Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.” Nobody else on this stage said that. And I said it loud and strong. And I was in the private sector. I wasn’t a politician, fortunately.
But I said it, and I said it loud and clear, “You’ll destabilize the Middle East.” That’s exactly what happened.
I also said, by the way, four years ago, three years ago, attack the oil, take the wealth away, attack the oil and keep the oil. They didn’t listen. They just started that a few months ago.”
What he said was simple and yet effective – regime change wars aren’t in America’s national interest. Trump continued on moments later:
“Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it any way you want, and it took — it took Jeb Bush, if you remember at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, it took him five days.
He went back, it was a mistake, it wasn’t a mistake. It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said, “it was a mistake.” The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world.
Obviously, it was a mistake.”
“George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.”
Donald Trump and His Takeover of the GOP
Back then, the GOP was a hawkish party and wanted to ensure U.S. military primacy and dominance worldwide.
Voices on the libertarian and more foreign policy realist or restrained side of the ledger were very much in the minority. Trump seemed to bring those voices forward and won many votes in the process.
And while I won’t say the future direction of GOP foreign policy is a settled issue, nor do I think Donald Trump won in 2016 due to his national security positions, I do think it was the issue that gave him a big edge in taking over the GOP. Especially when it came to the Second Iraq war, he said what most conservative national security experts were thinking but could never say for fear of being called an isolationist. Donald Trump never cared about those titles.
I give Donald Trump a lot of credit for this change in focus. He saved the GOP from itself as neo-conservativism is surely dead – at least in my view. Trump helped start the process of burying it. And while it still hasn’t been completely removed from Republican politics, it surely is now a dying philosophy.
Thank god. And for me, this is Donald Trump’s great accomplishment.
Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive and serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar role in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of the book The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization. Kazianis also has a background in defense journalism, having served as Editor-In-Chief at The Diplomat and Executive Editor for the National Interest.