Donald Trump has denounced the Iraq War as a “horrible mistake,” and “one of the worst decisions in the history of the country,” which was a “disaster” that was based on the Bush Administration having “lied” about “weapons of mass destruction” when “they knew there were none.”

Similar to other Iraq War critiques, whether consistent or retroactive, on the left or right, Trump does not explain what the preferable alternatives were to handling Saddam Hussein in 2002.  The sanctions were crumbling, and neither the USA troop presence in Saudi Arabia not the over decade long no-fly zones protecting Shiites and Kurds could endure indefinitely.  Saddam turned out not to have deployable weapons of mass destruction but he did have a WMD program that would have revived once sanctions collapsed.  Absent WMD, his regime was still murderous, even genocidal, a patron of terrorism, a fomenter of regional strife, a committed enemy of the USA with which it was de facto still at war since the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict.  What to do?

The initial USA led overthrow of Saddam was relatively quick and successful but subsequent policies went awry.  Maybe the “light foot print” should have been heavier.  Maybe Saddam’s army should have been remobilized rather than dissolved to prevent the officer class from aligning with sectarian militias.  The move towards elections was perhaps premature.  And the expectation of a near term functioning democracy from a traumatized, divided, artificial nation state like Iraq was likely implausible.

But would the world be safer and more just with Saddam still in power today?  As a vicious, unpopular sectarian minority regime, would Saddam have eventually faced an endless civil war like Assad in Syria?  There were not and are not happy, easy answers for the ongoing decades long tragedy of Iraq.  Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 portrayed Iraq in 2002 as a peaceful oasis, embodied by a child flying a kite, before the USA onslaught.  But Iraq was a cauldron of murder, torture, targetted famine, and seething sectarian competitions.  The USA could not ignore Iraq or fix Iraq.  Instead, we are still trying to manage the chaos and will for many decades.

Americans by nature don’t like chaos, or messes, or protracted conflicts.  We are historically pragmatic problem solvers who believe in practical solutions and relatively happy endings.  WWII was supposedly for us a costly but clear happy ending. After four years Germany and Japan surrendered unconditionally and successfully adopted democracy plus alliance with the USA.  But WWII’s close led to 40 years of Cold War with the Soviets.  And 25 years after the Cold War’s end tens of thousands of USA troops remain in Germany and Japan, a presence now in its eighth decade. The total costs of these ongoing arrangements across more than 70 years far exceed the costs of the Iraq involvement, although Japan and Germany do cover some expenses.

WWII was at least a clear, measurable victory.  The Korean War was more ambiguous.  USA forces entered that conflict in 1950 disastrously unprepared and were nearly driven into the sea.  Victory at Inchon led to great success followed by the calamitous Chinese intervention that again threatened defeat but eventually ended in a draw. Republican critics at the time denounced Korea as the “unnecessary war.”  Sixty five years later North Korea remains insanely dangerous and USA forces remain in Korea.  Total cost of USA involvement in Korea has been several times the cost of Iraq, not to mention over 30,000 killed, compared to over 4000 in Iraq.  (Like Japan and Germany, now prosperous and free South Korea currently pays for part of the USA military presence.) And for 30 years after the Korean War, South Korea was a dictatorship, not becoming democratic until the late 1980s.  Has our involvement in Korea been worth it?

USA exertions to save South Vietnam ended with withdrawal followed by North Vietnamese occupation.  Most of LBJ’s hawks eventually became guilt-ridden doves, creating an American prototype, rooted in our Puritan past, that claims sanctification through repentance over past wars.  We now admit we were wrong!  Now we’re forgiven and saved!  Such remorse signifies not only redemption but also sophistication.

Yet Vietnam was complicated. Postponement of communist victory there by a decade may have helped other southeast Asian countries, now prosperous and mostly democratic, stabilize politically and economically.  Their success was instructive to China as it edged away from Marxist orthodoxy and poverty towards free markets and one of the greatest creations of new wealth in human history.

During the 1980 campaign Ronald Reagan challenged orthodoxy and sparked enormous controversy by declaring the USA attempt to protect South Vietnam had been a “noble cause.”  Here’s an excerpt from his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

Ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.

In contrast, could or would Trump or anybody winsomely address veterans by telling them that the Iraq War had been a “horrible mistake” based on lies?

Reagan concluded his speech upliftingly and instructively:

But let’s do a better job of exporting Americanism. Let’s meet our responsibility to keep the peace at the same time we maintain without compromise our principles and ideals. Let’s help the world eliminate the conditions which cause citizens to become refugees. I believe it is our pre-ordained destiny to show all mankind that they, too, can be free without having to leave their native shore.

As French President Francois Mitterrand once grudgingly but admiringly admitted, Reagan had a mystical talent for incarnating American ideals.  So did FDR.  Most successful presidents do. The President is the high priest of American democracy who summons the nation to lofty goals.  In reflecting an historical continuity of national purpose he doesn’t impugn motives by alleging “lies.” Instead with a confident smile, he points upward to better days, with appreciation for past sacrifices that make them possible.

Such smiles and confidence inspire hope and perseverance in an always troubled, strife-torn world where evil and tragedy can be contained but not, until the parousia, eliminated.