AMES, Iowa—When he ran for president in 2008 and the Republican caucuses in Iowa made him a contender, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did not have much to say about Iraq. It was John McCain’s issue, Ron Paul’s issue. The most memorable comment Huckabee had about America’s war was that it had been, indeed, worth starting, and that when it came to the missing WMD, “just because you didn’t find every Easter egg didn’t mean it wasn’t planted.”
When he arrived at the Iowa FAMiLY Leader’s annual summit for social conservatives on Saturday, though, Huckabee summoned his inner hawk. Huckabee closed a half-hour speech by asking where the Obama administration had been while the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria burned through Iraq.
“There are 40,000 believers who are sitting on top of a mountain at the top of the Kurdish territory of Iraq without food or water,” thundered Huckabee. “And the best we have [is] a C-130 flying over, dropping a few gallons of water and some MREs. If we had good sense we would arm the Kurds, as we said we would!”
The thousand-odd social conservatives in attendance social conservatives broke into cheers—not as loud as their cheers when Sen. Ted Cruz had called for the repeal of Obamacare, but plenty loud.
“Those people, the only friends we’ve got in the region apart from Israel, we’ve left them with their pants around their ankles,” continued Huckabee. “We do nothing but stand back and watch ISIS use the weapons that we created. Where is the outrage in this country that we have not kept our promises to those Kurdish people?” After a swipe at Iraq’s prime minister, a “liar,” Huckabee praised the Kurds some more: “They stand there tonight battling with little more than the hopes that America will once more be a nation that values people who love freedom and who love God. And why aren’t we there?”
Huckabee, whose connection to the evangelical voter is near-telepathic, had found a way to describe the case for foreign intervention in a way that these voters—who also happen to be the first presidential caucus goers in the country—hadn’t heard before.
It had taken a while for Iowa to turn against the Iraq War, but in 2006 Democrats captured two congressional seats thanks to the backlash, while Barack Obama and John Edwards defeated Hillary Clinton in no small part because of the war. Since then, the Republican party’s libertarian, America-first segment has also found fertile soil in Iowa. Ron Paul nearly won the 2012 caucus vote, and his forces went on to take over the delegation and—until this year—the whole state party.
But the renewed hostilities in Iraq have rattled conservatives. At events in Iowa and at the summit this past weekend—Huckabee was joined there by fellow prospective 2016 GOP nominees Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum—Republican politicians and evangelical thinkers tried to fold the ISIS situation into various grand theories of foreign policy without bringing up how the war had started. For Huckabee, it was obvious that America had failed Christians.
“What we should and could do is help have the Kurds have their own independent country,” Huckabee told reporters after the speech. “What we should have [done] was a Status of Forces Agreement, which we never put it into place. The only other time we’ve done that was after Vietnam. It’s a recipe for disaster. We should have learned that before.”
Was Huckabee saying there should have been more American troops in Iraq after 2011? No, and he wasn’t calling for them now. But he worried that the administration had not considered what would happen to an Iraq run by revived sectarian interests—and what had already happened. “In 2003 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq,” Huckabee said. “Today, there are less than 400,000. It’s just a terrible situation.”
Did that raise any questions about whether America should have invaded Iraq? Definitely. But that’s not what the gathered Republicans with national ambitions wanted to discuss.
The day before the summit, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had campaigned at a supporter’s home in Knoxville, where some of the voters said they had lost friends or relatives in Iraq and feared that they’d sacrificed for naught.
But Jindal avoided any talk of the origins of Iraq’s latest woes. “It is not acceptable for this radical terrorist group to, one, occupy land in Iraq and Syria and, secondly, be threatening to slaughter Christians and minorities in Iraq,” said Jindal.
Jindal ran through all of the ways the Obama administration had emboldened America’s enemies. “What I worry about,” he said, “is that Iran, just like Putin, just like these other countries, is watching this president’s inaction.”
By the weekend, this had emerged as the safest way of describing what went wrong in Iraq. It could be marched into the parade of Obama administration missteps. To do otherwise was risky—recent polling by PPP shows that Americans are glad that we didn’t leave troops in Iraq. Joni Ernst, the highly touted Republican Senate candidate (and Iraq War veteran), told ABC News that what “she would have supported is leaving additional troops in Iraq longer” and that the Obama administration had not “followed guidance from military leaders.” By the time Ernst got to Ames, and away from scheduled interviews, she was saying absolutely nothing about Iraq.
Those who did discuss Iraq, like Huckabee, fit it into a story of Obama-driven weakness. “Sadly, what’s happening in Iraq is the latest manifestation of the failures of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy,” said Cruz to reporters. “The Sunnis and Shiites are fighting a sectarian civil war that has been raging for 1,500 years. They have been battling since 632. For the president to think that we can somehow cause the Sunnis and Shiites to lay down their arms, embrace, and sing ‘Kumbaya’ is the height of hubris and ignorance.”
Like Huckabee, Cruz was deploying one of the arguments against invading that had originally been used—and dismissed—at the start of the Iraq War. (Cruz ignored a follow-up question about whether the war had been worth it.) Meanwhile, the idea of “independent Kurdistan,” which was poison when Democrats supported it, had now become a perfectly mainstream position to flog in Iowa.
It was hard to tell what else was mainstream, though. Tony Krebsbach, a 26-year-old accountant who had been part of the Ron Paul takeover of the state party argued that what we were seeing in Iraq was predictable blowback.
“If I was living over in that country, and someone came over to ‘free’ me, and my family got bombed as a result, I wouldn’t be sitting there okay with the whole deal,” he said. “That would call me to action, and not in a good way.”
There was even more fatalism from the people outside the libertarian camp. During a break in the summit, over boxed lunches, a Kansas couple named Pidge and Skip Talley (nicknames, they clarified) wondered whether the airstrikes—which they agreed with—would be futile. They were both diehard fans of Joel C. Rosenberg, an author who publishes a dramatization of the end times almost every year, and they related his themes to the current situations in Iraq, Russia, Iran, and China.
“This has been going on for 3,000 years,” said Skip Talley. “It will go on until Christ returns.”
In his own speech to the summit, Rosenberg had assured the Iraq cynics that they were right. It was not a coincidence that the ancient cities of the Levant were under attack. “All roads seem to lead to Israel and Iraq these days,” he said. “In your lifetime, end times prophecy is coming true.”
This was cold comfort for the people who’d been convinced to support the Iraq War more than 10 years ago. They’d backed the president. They’d been convinced of a just cause that would save lives. It was still too much to think of it as an inevitable waste.
“I honestly, truly believe there were weapons of mass destruction,” said Pidge Talley, opening the water bottle from her lunchbox. “The guy had seven years to move them. But I wouldn’t say [we] weren’t Bush fans either. We wanted Reagan reincarnated.” Talley laughed at what she’d just admitted. “This is a Christian thing! I shouldn’t say that! No, but we want Reagan cloned.”