The media at any given opportunity in interviews and debates during this election cycle have been asking Presidential candidates a recurring silly hindsight question about the Iraq War. The question is often phrased in the context of “ Knowing what you know today, would you have invaded Iraq?” The question is silly and irrelevant in many ways. Among them is the reality that whoever becomes the next Commander-in Chief will not be whisked away in an Air Force One time machine to go back in time to change decisions made by previous administrations. They should not be questioned as if they are running to become ‘Captain Hindsight,’ but rather to see if they have the clarity of foresight to anticipate future scenarios based on current events, and are ready with viable plans to deal with them.
This question may play to campaign style theatrics and lead to candidates giving answers that people want to hear, but it does not help in vetting the qualifications of a potential Commander-in-Chief to solve todays national security challenges. Similar to a job interview, using flawed questions to test qualifications often lead to a flawed candidate being selected to handle the challenge at hand. As such, he or she might develop an equally flawed mandate based on a campaign promise such as merely ending a war rather than what is dutifully required by being Commander-in-Chief.
The wrong Iraq War questions were also asked of presidential candidates in 2008. At that point, the questions focused on asking candidates who initially supported the war, to defend or recant those positions. For candidates like then Senator Barack Obama who did not support the war or who was not around long enough to had actually voted on it, they were given the cover by such questions to tout that the U.S should withdraw from Iraq, without actually answering the defining the question which presidential hopefuls should have been asked. “Based on current conditions in Iraq how would you go about bringing that war to and end while achieving victory, honoring the sacrifices of our troops who fought there and leaving Iraq in a state where it can be of long term strategic advantage to both countries and enhance regional security?”
It does not matter how a candidate feels about a military conflict that he or she may inherit, he or she is applying for a job that requires that they lead to end it successfully and not a job to undermine the conflict in order to validate campaign talking points. Despite being an unpopular war, President Obama inherited the Iraq War that was won in 2007 after his predecessor made the bold decision for a troop surge and his generals where able to forge sectarian alliances with both Sunnis and Shiites to decimate Al Qaeda in Iraq. President G.W Bush had led as Commander-in Chief to win a politically unpopular war when it didn’t seem possible. He also showed he could learn from mistakes and adjust strategy. President Obama had the opportunity to build on that, but he failed to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have kept a residual force of U.S troops there till Iraq could properly defend itself and also as a deterrence to the re-mergence of terrorists and regional agitators such as Iran. He also failed to build on the fragile sectarian alliances that could have led to Iraq being stable and a strategic ally. In addition, he failed to honor that the fact as unpopular as the Iraq War is, U.S troops died to secure the freedom of thousands if not millions of Iraqis mostly Muslims. All this in part because the election process including questions asked of candidates facilitated the expectations of troop withdrawal by a certain time without emphasizing the achievement of long-term national security goals. Questions to candidates are too often designed get answers that promote political expediency and not for the preparedness to make tough decisions on a complex range of issues.
The vacuum left by such a withdrawal facilitated the grounds that ISIS have used to spread over from Syria into Iraq and pose new security threats worldwide. It has also allowed the current Russia-Iranian-Syrian Axis to emerge and strenghten as Russia escalates its military operations in that region. President Obama’s superficial red lines, miss-judging ISIS for a ‘jay-vee’ team and taking slow steps to help allies, is evident that the 2008 election should have set a higher bar for requirements for Commander-in-Chief. The question for candidates in 2016 should then be, “ Based on current events in Syria, Iraq ,the spread of ISIS and instability in the region, what would be your strategy to defeat ISIS, forge better relations with allies in the region to counter radical Islamists and to prevent Iran from going nuclear?”
If hindsight questions are going to be used, will Hillary Clinton be asked to justify her record as Secretary of State when the missile defense agreements with allies Poland and the Czech Republic were abandoned, especially since today the Russians are selling sophisticated missiles to Iran while rogue regimes like North Korea are doing more testing of their own? Will she be asked about the ill fated ‘reset’ and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) that has allowed Russia to have strategic advantages over the U.S? Back in the 2008 election Hillary Clinton had an ad pitching her as ready to answer the 3am ‘red phone’ call. Will she be asked and vetted on how she handled the call on the ‘red phone’ during the Benghazi attack? What difference does it makes? A lot, it could make the difference between a real Commander-in-Chief and having a CICINO (Commander-in-Chief in name only) See my previous article: The Perils of electing a CICINO
If I was advising a presidential candidate, I would suggest that he or she refuse to answer the hindsight question on Iraq in the current context that is being asked to candidates. Instead, challenge the interviewer to ask the proper question of the candidate of what their viable strategy they would propose to address it now. Based on current geopolitical challenges, presidential candidates also need to be vetted on how prepared are they to rally and lead the West or others who align with the values of freedom. The pundits and media would be doing a great dis-service to the whole country if they fail to not only vet if candidates are qualified to be President, but also if they are qualified to become Commander-in-Chief.