One of Donald Trump’s biggest claims during this election is that he was against he Iraq war. This places him in opposition to Hillary Clinton, George Bush, basically the entire government and the public at large, who sanctioned the war. In the end, the war was proven to be a mistake, at least in terms of execution, if not the decision to start it in the first place. That the outcome of the war was so bad has opened a lane for those to play the ‘I told you so’ card.

With respect to the 2016 election, Trump has been chided for his lack of experience and judgement, which renders him unfit to be the president, so the argument goes. Trump points to his call about the Iraq war as proof that his judgement is sound. This would be a great argument, if indeed it were true. But proof has been lacking.

Many in the media have pointed to the following interview Trump did with Howard Stern back in 2002, and declared it the smoking gun that definitively closes the issue and confirms beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump is a big liar (start at 1:30):

Stern asks Trump point blank: “Are you for invading Iraq?” Trump responds, “Yeah, I guessss….soooo.”

Anyone who hears that, and  has a modicum of understanding of human beings can hear the doubt in his answer. The phrase ‘I guess’ is one of the most non-affirming affirmations in the English language, and the way he drags out that 4 word answer is further indicative of his uncertainty.

At the very least Trump was conflicted. At most, he was against the war but was wary of giving an answer which would have been extremely unpopular in 2002. Given that it’s Donald Trump we’re talking about, arguing that he might have shied away from a controversial comment is hard to believe. However, even the most fervent anti-Trump diehard must clearly see that his response is hardly a full throated endorsement of an Iraq invasion.

Trump points to this Esquire interview as his proof that he was against the war at the time. It is (to my knowledge) the only recorded evidence of his claim. The problem for him was that it was in August 2004, nearly 18 months after the Iraq war began in March 2003. Esquire has conveniently added a disclaimer to the article to make sure the reader knows this, and coming just short of outright calling him a liar.

The interesting thing is that even despite this, Trump does come off very well in the interview. Consider the following passage (emphasis mine):

My life is seeing everything in terms of “How would I handle that?” Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we’re in. I would never have handled it that way. Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the county? C’mon. Two minutes after we leave, there’s going to be a revolution, and the meanest, toughest, smartest, most vicious guy will take over. And he’ll have weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam didn’t have.

 

What was the purpose of this whole thing? Hundreds and hundreds of young people killed. And what about the people coming back with no arms and legs? Not to mention the other side. All those Iraqi kids who’ve been blown to pieces. And it turns out that all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing!

 

I would have been tougher on terrorism. Bin Laden would have been caught long ago. Tell me, how is it possible that we can’t find a guy who’s six foot six and supposedly needs a dialysis machine? Can you explain that one to me? We have all out energies focused on one place—where they shouldn’t be focused.

 

When I look at some of the things that happened in government, I can’t believe it. Countries that we’re protecting are screwing us on oil prices. It’s unthinkable. I wouldn’t stand for it. How would I handle that? That’s what it feels like to be me.

He shows what proved to be superior understanding of the situation, both in terms of the basic flaw with our Middle East adventures, and the strategic implications of our skirmishes. On the first front, he is correctly arguing that the US trying to bring democracy and liberal Western values to places which do not value them, and never have, is an exercise in futility.  Secondly, he accurately understood the destabilization involved would lead to the most vicious assuming power. Which is exactly what happened, with our Regime Change philosophy producing ISIS and Iran on the path to full nuclear capabilities.

At the end of the day, I’d say Trump is shooting par. While he did answer in the affirmative to the question of invading Iraq, the answer was clearly tinged with conflict and doubt. His more full throated disapproval came after the war had already started, yet it did show a superior understanding of the situation and Middle East dynamics than can be expected of a civilian.

This is not an insignificant point. To date, the argument over Trump’s Iraq war stance as it pertains to the election has ignored the fact that Trump was a civilian at the time, while Hillary Clinton was a member of the Congress that carried out the war, and who personally voted for it. Thus, Clinton at best can only try to bring Trump down into the realm of the Incorrect as it pertains to this issue.

And even if she is successful, and it is proven that Trump was for the war at first and then changed his mind later, it does absolve Hillary Clinton, and those who voted yes for the colossal mistake they made in sending our troops to Iraq. Whether the decision was made on an outright lie, faulty intelligence, or a combination of the two, there’s no hiding from the fact that the blunder that was made calls into question the judgement and leadership abilities of the establishment, of the incumbents, of the old guard that guided us during that time. And the end result isn’t favorable for that lot.

In this way, this episode of the campaign is a microcosm of the decision Americans will have to make. From a strictly political perspective, are we going to go with the old guard candidate, which has proven to be a failure, simply because she has ‘been there before?’ I would think not, but you never know. At the very least, this country will have had a real choice for once.