NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Ten years after the war in Iraq began, the Conservative Political Action Conference held a panel Thursday called "Too Many American Wars? Should We Fight Anywhere And Can We Afford It?" The discussion, held at the annual conservative confab, was meant to ask whether the U.S. can afford military operations like the war in the Middle East.
"That's not a very good title," said the first speaker, Dr. Angelo Codevilla, professor of international relations at Boston University "All human action, wars included, is to be judged by what is achieved, not by what goes into it."
The debate over the accuracy of the title underscored the uncomfortable fact that the Iraq War, as Ross Douthat wrote, has for many undone the Republican Party's credibility on foreign policy from the Cold War.
The Bush administration's push for the Iraq War was in another, almost forgotten, political era. However, the effects of that decision and the mishandling of the occupation remain hurdles to Republicans winning back the foreign policy issue -- and therefore, having a convincing commander-in-chief.
Most of the panelists saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as efforts that went awry, and not necessarily the results of poor decision-making.
The panelists, from hawks like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) to more war-weary academics, all agreed that nation-building fares poorly. "There is nothing that is more completely nonsensical [than the idea] that we can build other nations," said Codevilla. "If you haven't won the peace, you ought not to engage in war. If you do engage in war, you'd better have an idea of how you want to end it."
Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Iraq and Afghanistan War vet, said that at times his unit didn't have running water or food, but had the Claremont Review of Books, an intellectually rigorous publication of a Straussian bent.
He made a case for continuing to fight Islamic radicalism, a conventional Republican refrain. "Are we fighting too many wars? I would say no. We're fighting one war, and it's against radical Islamic jihad," he said. "Wars are not movies, they do not end. They are won or lost."
Cotton received an academic rebuke from the next speaker, Dr. Ivan Eland -- the most dovish of the participants on Thursday. "I don't think we should be fighting radical Islam ... we should fight radical Islamists fighting the U.S.," he said.
Eland then said war was responsible for much of the growth of the "welfare state" -- an idea that is anathema to conservatives. He laid the blame not on Franklin Roosevelt, but on Woodrow Wilson. "The roots of the New Deal were in the government takeover of the economy in World War I," Eland said.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who moderated the panel, said that Eland's speech made him rethink whether it was a good idea for the U.S. to get into World War I.
In a brief interview with The Huffington Post, King said that he wasn't rethinking the decision to invade Iraq. "There were a number of things I said I was going to rethink after I listened to that panel, and that was not one of them," he said.
"I would like to go back and redo some of the war in Iraq," he said, adding that President Barack Obama "pulled everything" out of Iraq.
Bill Lawrence, a retired Marine and schoolteacher from Albany, N.Y., listened to the speakers and said he had "mixed feelings" about invading Iraq. Lawrence laid the blame on President George H. W. Bush for creating the problem by not overthrowing Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. "We had to do what we had to do," he said.
"We didn't understand the politics of Iraq," said Joe DiBello, who is retired and lives across the river in Alexandria, Va. "The same thing happened in Afghanistan," he said. "Bush went in and had an astounding victory, but unfortunately, al Qaeda went to Pakistan."
"The invasion was based on WMD -- which everyone in the world thought Iraq had," DiBello said. "When they found out different, people said, 'Wait a minute.'"
In his 13-hour filibuster on March 7, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tapped into a latent Republican desire to challenge Obama on foreign policy. Paul continued the theme at the panel on Thursday. On the debate over drones, he said, "To those who would dismiss this debate as frivolous, I say tell that to the heroic men and women who sacrificed their limbs and lives. Tell that to the 6,000 parents of kids who died as American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan -- tell them the Bill of Rights is no big deal."
One Paul fan, Christian Miele, a 32-year-old law student at Emory University, said he agreed that the war was a mistake "retrospectively."
"Hindsight is 20/20 ... I guess I've really bought into the non-interventionist approach," he said. "Peace should be our message, not war."
Below, a liveblog of the latest updates from CPAC:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took the stage Saturday at CPAC, praising the assemblage for its support during the fraught Wisconsin recall fight, which Walker won, allowing him to stay in power. His speech was themed around the idea that the states are the laboratories of policy -- "Real reform does not happen in Washington, it happens in the statehouses throughout this country," he said -- and that he, in particular, was leading the way to end "government dependency."
If future GOP presidential runs depend on silver-tongues articulation of dorm-room "makers vs. takers" arguments, then Walker's future is pretty bright.