It’s been 20 years since the Iraq war, and Left and Right have now switched

Between George W. Bush and Donald Trump, there’s been a major revolution in American politics.

Monday marks the 20-year anniversary of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Much will be said about the damage done, the immense cost in lives and dollars, and how the war destabilized the Middle East. 

This column is not about that. Let’s instead look back at how the last two decades have strangely and radically rearranged America’s politics.

One month before the war, on February 15th, 2003, millions all over the globe and the U.S. held the world’s largest antiwar protest. Progressives’ primary identity at the time was opposing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their neoconservative agenda. The Patriot Act. Torture. Mass surveillance. Progressives despised it all and loathed the whole War on Terror package. Barack Obama would become the Democratic nominee and new president in 2008 largely by branding himself as the antiwar candidate.

Notice I said “progressives” and not Democrats. Most congressional Democrats voted for the Iraq war. Hillary Clinton’s vote came back to haunt her. To be clear: I’m specifically talking about what the majority of American progressives’ passions and leanings were in that era.

Conservatives were the opposite. Support for the Iraq war and the Bush administration was the primary factor in conservative identity at that time. Conservatives defended not only the war, but the Patriot Act, mass surveillance and torture (what they insisted were just “enhanced interrogation techniques.”) Conservatives accused antiwar progressives of being traitorous and on the side of the terrorists. High-profile neoconservatives like Bush speechwriter David Frum even tried to expel the small minority of antiwar libertarians and conservatives from the movement, declaring them traitors too.

Save for Rep. Ron Paul, you would be hard-pressed to find a congressional Republican who voted against the U.S. invasion. The GOP base, Republican establishment, and broad conservative movement all agreed in unison on the necessity and nobility of Bush’s war.

With no Weapons of Mass Destruction after all and no end in sight to the U.S. occupation, by 2005 a slim majority of Americans had decided the war was a mistake. Yet conservative support remained strong. A 2006 Gallup poll showed that only 19% of Republicans were willing to call the war a mistake three years after the invasion.

As the Tea Party movement began to take shape at the tail end of Bush’s second term and with the ushering in of President Obama, many conservatives were still not necessarily willing to call the war a mistake, but the Bush administration’s obvious failures had made them less willing to talk about it, much less champion it. 

Targeting government spending became the new primary conservative identity. A new crop of libertarian-leaning Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul and Reps. Thomas Massie and Justin Amash, pointed out that wars cost a lot of money. They also weren’t shy about saying they opposed the Iraq war—as Republicans. Each was considered a Tea Party Republican as much as Senator Ted Cruz and other popular conservative figures back then. Antiwar Republican Ron Paul was considered one of the founders of the Tea Party movement along with Sarah Palin and would double his votes in the 2012 GOP presidential primary compared to his 2008 run, from one million to two million.

Needless to say, on the Right, it was becoming more comfortable to openly be an antiwar conservative.

During that Tea Party era and the following years, many progressives might have protested some of Obama’s interventions abroad but certainly not as many and not as loudly. After all, this was their guy, Barack, doing this, not that reckless knucklehead Dubya. 

Unfortunately, Obama largely preserved much of the War on Terror infrastructure his predecessor had erected and even expanded mass surveillance powers, something whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed in 2013. Obama got the U.S. out of Iraq in 2011, mostly, but his promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan wouldn’t happen until long after he left office. 

The most antiwar pushback in that era started to come from the Right, combined with some progressives who still held firm to their principles from the Bush years. In August 2013, it was Tea Party Republicans who opposed a U.S. military strike on Syria by the Obama administration. A letter to Obama demanding that Congress vote on any military action had “140 signatures – a third of all House members – including 21 Democrats.”

21 Democrats. That meant 119 signatories were Republicans. Against war. Granted much of this stance was partisan opposition to a Democratic president, similar to left-leaning voters giving Obama a pass on war.

But whatever the reasons, the Right and Left in the U.S. were beginning to shift somewhat on foreign policy. The neoconservatives who dominated the Bush era grumbled about the “isolationist” tendencies within the Tea Party and some began migrating to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

Then came Donald Trump. 

In 2016, Trump quickly became not only the center of the conservative universe but the singular target for progressive anger, driving both sides insane, to varying degrees, and for good or ill.

Part of the shellshock progressives suffered from Trump’s political arrival was trying to rationalize how it all happened. Many Democratic voters quickly adopted the theory coming from the Clinton camp that Trump was somehow in cahoots with Russia’s government and its president, Vladimir Putin. One progressive columnist even seriously wondered if Trump had been a secret Russian agent since the 1980s. After a two-year investigation during the Trump administration, special counsel Robert Mueller said he could not find evidence of such collusion.

But that didn’t matter. Many Democrats still believe it. Progressives deeply hate Trump so therefore they also hated his imagined tag team partner Putin. Whether it was actually true or not didn’t matter. Trump and Putin remain basically the same guy, really, in so many left-leaning minds.

In his rhetoric, Trump was as antiwar as Ron Paul had been prior, bashing the stupidity of the Iraq war, the Bush administration and telling the GOP base that the last Republican president had lied the country into war. “Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump said in South Carolina in 2016, formerly known as ‘Bush Country.’”

“George Bush made a mistake,” Trump said. “Obviously we can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq.” 

“They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction,” he declared. “There were none and they knew that there were none.”

At the time, political observers declared Trump done in the Republican Party. Many were slow to see the radical ideological revolutions taking place in both parties. We all know how it actually turned out for Trump.

Trump was by no means pure in antiwar principles, but his broad sentiment, against constant U.S. intervention, against nation building and world policing, became something of a popular conservative consensus throughout his four years in the White House. 

But while conservatives were becoming more reflexively against the U.S. intervening abroad, progressives seemed to put their former antiwar stance on the backburner to focus on Trump. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, a divide emerged between those who think the U.S. should do all it can to help versus those who see American involvement as a U.S. proxy war with Russia. But that divide also formed along who was more hawkish and who was not based strongly on people’s views of Trump. 

If you were a progressive, you were likely hawkish. If you were a conservative, you questioned U.S. foreign policy.

If you’re a conservative in 2023, you might question why we are sending more money and aid to a war we claim not to be involved in than we did each month in our own war in Afghanistan. That’s the kind of argument an antiwar progressive would have made about the cost of Iraq in 2003.

If you’re a progressive in 2023, you wonder why conservatives complain about the U.S. helping Ukraine fight a madman who is a danger to the world. That’s the kind of view a conservative would have held about protecting the world from Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For progressives today, if you question the wisdom of the U.S. role in Ukraine, you are a traitor to America. You are pro-Putin. This is the same tactic Bush-era Republicans used against antiwar Democrats twenty years ago.

Conservatives today resent being called traitors for having valid concerns about their country’s foreign policy, a view once held by antiwar lefties of old.

One of the last glimpses of the old antiwar Left came in October 2022 when 30 progressive Democrats sent a letter to the White House urging diplomacy in Ukraine as opposed to the U.S. helping prolong the war.

The attacks from the Democratic establishment and remaining parts of the hawkish Right were absolutely fierce over them taking an antiwar position, so the progressive group retracted their letter in less than 24 hours.

These progressives were being taught a lesson about what Democrats were supposed to believe regarding foreign policy in the Biden era.

But this domestic political switch hasn’t just happened on foreign policy as seen through the Ukraine conflict. Bush-Cheney Republicans once favored racial and religious profiling post-9/11, throwing suspects in Gitmo and taking them to black sites with no due process, spying on mosques, and other constitutionally questionable behavior. Progressives back then warned that these extra and unconstitutional powers might one day be turned on American citizens.

Today, it is progressives in a post-January 6th environment who don’t seem to mind J6 detainees being held without due process, keeping tabs on right-wing “domestic terrorists” and even attempting to institute a Disinformation Governance Board to censor citizens’ speech to keep the country ‘safe.’ 

Republicans used to use 9/11 as an excuse to curtail civil liberties. Democrats now use January 6th as a justification to do the same thing.

They’ve switched.

On Fox News now, you will hear some of the most impassioned antiwar banter from popular hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Meanwhile, on MSNBC, you will find former Bush and intelligence agency figures sounding a lot like they did 20 years ago, they just had to switch to the political side that now shares their views. MSNBC’s most popular host is former Bush White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace.

Most Republicans in Congress are still hawkish just as most congressional Democrats once voted for the Iraq War. Again, this column isn’t about that. To be clear: I’m specifically outlining what the majority of American conservatives’ passions and leanings are on matters of war, peace, and civil liberties, today.

Earlier this month, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a figure very popular with conservatives now, said the U.S. shouldn’t write a blank check for Ukraine and called Russia’s war a “territorial dispute,” he was taking the conservative position in 2023. 

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis said.

GOP hawks howled over DeSantis’s remarks. The neocons who have since migrated to the Democratic Party howled too. Democrat pundits in general howled along with the Republican hawks and Democrat neocons. They condemned DeSantis as a right-wing fanatic.

They did this for DeSantis basically saying what Obama did in 2016 about the U.S. and Ukraine, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do… We have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.”

“Replace ‘core’ with ‘vital’ and it’s DeSantis’ outrageous position,” Andrew Sullivan observed.

Two decades ago the U.S. was a primary player in a foreign war we should have never launched, and saying so was explicitly a leftwing position. Today the U.S. is a primary player in a foreign war we should not be involved in and saying so is explicitly a rightwing position, though it was pretty much Obama’s position seven years ago.

On the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war it is hard to ignore that the two major parties in America have mostly switched on which one is more in favor of war and protracted U.S. foreign intervention and which one is less so.

The Iraq war becoming a disaster, even back then, was an easy prediction. That the War Party of 2003 would eventually pass that baton to the other party was not.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for