TIME Military

Congress Takes Tiny Step Toward Authorizing Anti-ISIS War

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
Robert Burck / U.S. Navy An EA-6B Growler takes off from the USS George W. Bush for strikes against ISIS last fall.

U.S.-led campaign has killed “more than 10,000” since last summer without lawmakers’ assent

There’s nothing that interests Congress more than self-preservation. That, for example, is what keeps the pork flowing back home. But the nation’s recent wars—messy, lengthy and inconclusive—have become radioactive. The public has turned on them, which has led lawmakers to go to great lengths to keep their fingerprints off of them.

The GOP-controlled Congress has refused to authorize the near-daily U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria that have been taking place since last August. Given that, it was jarring to hear Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken declare Wednesday that the campaign has killed “more than 10,000” ISIS militants in the name of the American people.

Republican presidential candidates, nearly all of them lawmakers, have blasted President Obama for his conduct of the air campaign against ISIS. Yet they have refused to offer specifics on how they would wage the war. More critically, they have refused even to authorize it. “I believe the President must come to Congress to begin a war and that Congress has a duty to act,” Republican Sen. Rand Paul said back in December. “Right now, this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it.”

Six months, and thousands of bombs and missiles later, nothing has changed. That’s why it was refreshing to see the House Appropriations Committee take step toward responsibility when it passed its version of the Pentagon’s 2016 spending bill Tuesday.

In a sign of unease over Congress going AWOL in the war on ISIS, the committee voted 29-22 that “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force against [ISIS].” The Obama Administration has cited congressional authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 to justify its ongoing aerial attacks against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

But the push for the vote didn’t come from some Republican hawk. Instead, it came as an amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who gained notoriety as the only lawmaker to vote against using military force following the 9/11 attacks.

“More than eight months into yet another open-ended war in the Middle East, Congress has yet to live up to its constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on this war,” Lee said after the vote. “The President sent Congress an authorization [request, in February],” she added. “It’s past time that the Speaker [John Boehner] allow a debate and vote on such a critical national security issue.” Of course, a committee vote is a long way from winning approval from the full House, never mind the Senate.

Obama’s request proved a double-edged sword that kept it from winning congressional buy-in. He sought Democratic backing by ruling out “enduring offensive ground-combat operations.” But that didn’t sway war-weary Democrats. At the same time, the language disturbed Republicans, who viewed it as half-hearted.

Consequently, the nation has been waging war against ISIS for nearly a year without explicit congressional backing.

In today’s polarized America, that may be a good way to try to win the next election. But it’s a terrible way to try to win the next war.

TIME Military

How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS

IRAQ-CONFLICT
MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP / Getty Images Iraqi Shiite fighters battle Sunni Islamic State militants north of Baghdad May 26.

The U.S. decision 12 years ago has provided the enemy with some of its best commanders and fighters

After nearly a year of air strikes led by the U.S. and ground attacks by the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is proving to be a far more cagey and cunning foe than the Pentagon ever expected. A big reason for its success is the George W. Bush Administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the 2003 invasion—without the knowledge or consent of either the Pentagon or President.

It’s a jarring reminder of how a key decision made long ago is complicating U.S. efforts to fight ISIS and restore some semblance of stability to Iraq. Instead of giving Iraq a fresh start with a new army, it helped create a vacuum that ISIS has filled. Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general and chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, said keeping the Iraqi army intact was always part of U.S. strategy. “The plan was that the army would be the foundation of rebuilding the Iraqi military,” he says. “Many of the Sunnis who were chased out ended up on the other side and are probably ISIS fighters and leaders now.” One expert estimates that more than 25 of ISIS’s top 40 leaders once served in the Iraqi military.

General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, says the U.S. could have weeded Saddam Hussein’s loyalists from the Iraqi army while keeping its structure, and the bulk of its forces, in place. “We could have done a lot better job of sorting through that and keeping the Iraqi army together,” he told TIME on Thursday. “We struggled for years to try to put it back together again.”

The decision to dissolve the Iraqi army robbed Baghdad’s post-invasion military of some of its best commanders and troops. Combined with sectarian strains that persist 12 years later, it also drove many of the suddenly out-of-work Sunni warriors into alliances with a Sunni insurgency that would eventually mutate into ISIS. Many former Iraqi military officers and troops, trained under Saddam, have spent the last 12 years in Anbar Province battling both U.S. troops and Baghdad’s Shi’ite-dominated security forces, Pentagon officials say.

“Not reorganizing the army and police immediately were huge strategic mistakes,” said Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff and architect of the “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007. “We began to slowly put together a security force, but it took far too much time and that gave the insurgency an ability to start to rise.”

The U.S.-ordered dissolution of the Iraqi army was a major error. But it was compounded by former Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s wholesale firing of Sunni commanders in favor of more compliant, if less competent, Shi’ites during his 2006-2014 tenure. That turned what was supposed to have been a national army into little more than a sectarian militia that took orders from the Prime Minister’s inner circle. “Malaki went into that army and pulled out all of its distinguished leaders, whose guys were devoted to them, and put in these cronies and hacks,” Keane said. “And those guys pocketed the money that was supposed to be used for training.”

So how did the Iraqi army come to dissolve? The Bush Administration tapped Paul Bremer to head the so-called Coalition Provisional Authority on May 11, 2003. Twelve days later, he issued an order wiping away the Iraqi military, with a pledge to build a new one from scratch, untainted by any ties to Saddam’s regime. The army’s end quickly led to civil unrest, a growing insurgency and a U.S. occupation that would last eight years and cost the lives of 4,491 American troops.

Things would have been different if the Iraqi army had been scrubbed of Hussein’s loyalists, but otherwise permitted to exist, military officers believe. “I think it would have caused us to spend less time in Iraq—I think we would have been to leave a lot sooner than we were,” said Odierno, who commanded forces in Iraq during three tours between 2003 and 2010. “I think it would have given a better chance for Iraqis to come together.”

Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army has been shrouded in mystery. James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, conducted one of the most detailed autopsies into the decision. “President Bush had agreed with military planners that the Army was essential for the internal and external security of the country,” Pfiffner wrote in the professional journal Intelligence and National Security in 2010. “When asked in 2006 by his biographer…about the decision, Bush replied ‘Well, the policy was to keep the army intact. Didn’t happen’.” Pfiffner suggests the decision made by Bremer actually came from Vice President Dick Cheney. (“It may have been a mistake,” Cheney said in 2011 without confirming it was his decision.)

Over the past year, ISIS has seized hundreds of U.S.-built Iraqi military vehicles given to Baghdad by the U.S. government. But history shows that the U.S., beyond providing ISIS with war machines, also made a fateful decision that gave ISIS some of its best commanders and fighters.

TIME Military

Pentagon Rhetoric About Ramadi’s Fall Risks U.S. Credibility

IRAQ-CONFLICT-ANBAR
Sabah Arar—AFP/Getty Images Ramadi residents flee their city after ISIS fighters took control of it on Saturday.

Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet if you're not winning

When generals start playing with syntax, hold on to your wallets. “The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) was not driven out of Ramadi,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday. “They drove out of Ramadi.”

That grammatical shift from the passive to the active voice—Dempsey boasts a master’s degree in literature from Duke, after all—highlights just how badly Iraq’s U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is now going.

“We saw this movie—it was called Vietnam,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who began his career in that country in 1967, advising South Vietnamese marines. “They are losing credibility. We went through this in Vietnam where we touted pacification and winning all these battles while strategically losing the war.”

The growing disconnect between what’s happening on the ground, and what U.S. military leaders say is happening on the ground, has consequences. “For the last 13 years, even though we have not done well in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the American people have stayed with the military,” Bing West, a one-time Marine infantryman and former assistant defense secretary, says. “But if the American people now see a gap between the reality and what the military is telling them, then you end up with the corrosiveness that we saw in Vietnam.”

Dempsey’s verbal twist—implying that ISIS didn’t force some of Iraq’s best troops out of the city, but, thanks in part to American training, they left in a crafty and bold military move—comes on the heels of a Friday briefing at the Pentagon that Saturday revealed to be close to fiction.

“We firmly believe [ISIS] is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria,” Marine Brigadier General Thomas Weidley told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from the region. “The Iraqis, with coalition support, are making sound progress,” Weidley, chief of staff of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS operation, added. “The coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq as they conduct operations in Ramadi.”

The next day, after a series of bombings, ISIS fighters took over Ramadi after Iraqi troops fled, collecting a half-dozen U.S.-provided tanks and 100 vehicles abandoned by the Iraqis in their rush to drive out of the capital of Anbar province. ISIS forces killed an estimated 500 Iraqi troops and civilians, while 25,000 residents fled the city. In addition to Ramadi, they now occupy the major Iraqi cities of Mosul and Fallujah.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 11.23.52 AM

Pentagon officials argue that the long-term U.S. strategy—stepped-up (re)training of Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. and allied air power—ultimately will prevail. They note that they have said from the start that the anti-ISIS campaign could take three years. The U.S. joined the fight last August, and has been flying nearly-daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. There’s a push “for a narrative about success, and that the strategy is fine, that influences different echelons of our government and military to not go outside that narrative,” says Derek Harvey, a one-time Army intelligence officer now at the University of South Florida. “That disconnect risks undermining their credibility.” The retired colonel, who worked for Army general David Petraeus, believes the U.S. focus on vehicles destroyed “measures progress by elements that are irrelevant and meaningless.” The U.S.-led effort is additionally handicapped because it has been done half-heartedly. “A bad strategy that is not properly resourced has a zero chance of success,” he says.

The Pentagon has deployed about 3,000 U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces, although President Obama has restricted their efforts to areas well behind the front lines. That means they can’t call in air strikes and gather front-line intelligence that could give Iraqi forces a critical advantage. Zinni contends a relatively small U.S. combat force on the ground inside Iraq could destroy ISIS, but Obama’s aversion to casualties has ruled that out. “Everybody with any kind of military experience in the Pentagon knows damn right well that this strategy isn’t going to work because you’re counting on breaking his will and there’s no sign of that happening,” he adds. “This strategy has got to bring up Vietnam, where they were saying, `Give us time, we’ll kill enough of them and hit a tipping point.’ The problem is they have not found the tipping point.”

The American people, following more than a decade of war, may not be in the mood for another two years of fighting with an unreliable ally. The Pentagon is doing what it can despite the restrictions the White House has imposed. But the over-selling of military progress in battling ISIS is the first step in a treacherous march toward disillusionment that the U.S. military has now begun.

“If the battle is going against you—and it is—do not put yourself in the position where the credibility of the U.S. military is undermined,” West says of Dempsey’s drive-time comment. “If it doesn’t look good, say nothing.”

TIME Terrorism

These Are the Cities Most Likely to Be Hit by a Terrorist Attack

Twelve of the world's capital cities are considered at "extreme risk" of an attack

A report by global-risk-analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft has identified the cities most likely to be hit by a terrorist attack.

Maplecroft analyzed 1,300 of the world’s important urban centers and commercial hubs and ranked them based on the intensity and frequency of attacks in the year following February 2014. The report also combined the number and severity of attacks in the previous five years.

Baghdad is considered the most at-risk city in the world, with 1,141 people dying in 380 attacks. In all, seven of the most at-risk cities are all in Iraq, including Mosul ranked at No. 2 and Ramadi at No. 3.

According to the index, 64 cities around the world are at “extreme risk” of an attack, most of these are in the Middle East (27) including cities in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Asia.

Of those 64 at extreme risk of a terrorist attack, 12 are capital cities including Egypt’s Cairo, Abuja in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya and Pakistan’s Islamabad.

There are 14 cities in Africa that have seen an increased risk of violence, which has been attributed to militant extremist groups Boko Haram and al-Shabab as well as political instability.

Three cities at extreme risk of attacks are in Europe, with Ukraine’s Luhansk ranked at 46, Donetsk at 56, and Grozny in Russia at 54.

The British city most at risk of an attack is Belfast (91), compared with Manchester (398) and London, which is ranked at 400.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead in January, the city was considered “high risk” and its ranking soared from 201 before the attacks to 97.

TIME jeb bush

Jeb Bush Doubles Down on His Last Name

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a town hall meeting, on May 16, 2015, at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall—AP Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a town hall meeting, on May 16, 2015, at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

"I love my mom and dad. I love my brother"

Make no mistake: Jeb Bush is a member of that Bush clan.

After struggling last week to square his likely presidential campaign with his family tree, the former Florida governor is hitting the reset button. Where he previously tried to keep his father and brother — both former Presidents — at a distance, Bush is now doubling down on his lineage.

“I know you all know me as George and Barbara’s boy,” Bush said Wednesday as he opened a round table with business leaders in New Hampshire’s Seacoast. “You probably know that I’m George W.’s brother.”

There’s no escaping the family liability, no matter how much Jeb Bush’s advisers earlier thought he could. During a February speech in Chicago, Bush tried to paint himself as a different kind of leader and sought to stamp out comparisons to his family, especially his brother.

“I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make,” Bush said. “But I am my own man.”

That didn’t last long.

“I’m proud of my family,” Bush said Wednesday. “I love my mom and dad. I love my brother. And people are just going to have to get over that. That’s just the way it is.”

The family ties came to the forefront when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Bush if he would have supported his brother’s decision to go to war in Iraq, even knowing that the Iraqi government did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Two days after he answered in the affirmative, he dodged the question and said he wouldn’t answer what he called hypotheticals. Aides tried to claim he misunderstood the question and move on.

His rivals for the GOP nomination didn’t yield. Democrats gleefully painted Jeb Bush as a third term for George W. Bush, who left the White House deeply unpopular over his decision to go into Iraq. Bush’s advisers struggled to respond as all corners of politics piled on.

By Thursday, Jeb Bush was telling voters that he made a mistake during the interview, and that he would not have gone to war in Iraq knowing that Saddam Hussein was not the threat George W. Bush’s Administration claimed he was.

“I would not have gone into Iraq,” Bush told reporters in Arizona.

It was a tough week for Bush and his campaign, and one Bush’s team now is looking to leave in the past. For Bush’s top advisers, it is now clear that there is no escaping the shadow of his brother or father.

“I’m not going to be in a witness protection program. I’m a Bush. I’m proud of it,” Bush told reporters. “What am I supposed to say?”

He said any campaign for President would have hiccups and stumbles.

“Admit that you’re going to make mistakes. We’re all imperfect,” Bush said.

Bush is slated to spend two days in New Hampshire, a state that is shaping up to be a state ripe with potential for his campaign. He was scheduled to take voters’ questions near Manchester, followed by business tours on Thursday in Concord and Salem.

TIME Innovation

How the U.S. Foreign Service Lacks Diversity

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Two top diplomats have a message about America’s foreign service: It’s “too white.”

By Thomas R. Pickering and Edward J. Perkins in the Washington Post

2. Can we ‘test’ strategies against poverty like we test new medicines?

By Michaeleen Doucleff in Goats and Soda by NPR

3. Here’s why the fall of one town to ISIS might push Iraq toward total sectarian war.

By Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker

4. When HIV patients drop out of care, they die. Kenya found a way to prevent that.

By the University of California San Francisco

5. We can end the illegal sex trade.

By Jimmy Carter and Swanee Hunt in Politico

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Iraq

Why ISIS Can Still Defeat the Iraqi Army in Spite of U.S. Help

Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad on May 17, 2015.
AP Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad on May 17, 2015.

American air strikes cannot compensate for divisions and distrust between the Shi'ite majority and Sunni minority

The U.S.-led coalition pounded the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) over the weekend near the Iraqi city of Ramadi but that didn’t stop them from taking the city.

On Sunday videos appeared that seemed to show Iraqi soldiers clinging to the sides of vehicles speeding out of Ramadi as ISIS moved in. The black flag of ISIS now flies over the capital of Anbar, one of Iraq’s largest provinces.

“ISIS is still a very potent force,” says Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst.

It’s a clear sign that Iraq’s national forces aren’t ready to take on ISIS despite U.S. training and support and that Sunnis still have little faith in the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. The government has now called on the Shi’ite militias to help re-take Ramadi, which could further alienate Sunnis in the city, if the militias harm local people.

“The central government is accountable and is responsible for the ISIS occupation of [Ramadi] because they did not answer our demands,” says Suleiman al-Kubaisi, a spokesperson for Anbar’s provincial council. “They did not send reinforcements — neither ammunition or weapons.”

Ramadi and Anbar province was a battleground between 2003 and 2006 as the Sunnis including al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, took on U.S.-led coalition forces.

After Iraqi forces, flanked with thousands of mostly Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia retook the city of Tikrit from ISIS in March, it seemed like a turning point in the war against ISIS.

“Tirkit was not like Stalingrad,” says Pollack. He says the U.S. needs to make a greater investment in Iraqi ground operations. “We knew all along this was not a war that could be won with air power alone.”

Since Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi took over from Nuri al-Maliki last year, he has been promising reforms for the disaffected Sunni population, but little has changed. “We are waiting, and as we were waiting, Ramadi fell,” says Alaa Makki, a former Sunni member of the Iraqi parliament and senior advisor to the government.

Key to defeating ISIS is getting Iraqi Sunnis to fight with government, but Baghdad has not persuaded them that they are serious. “You’ve got to show the Sunnis that the future of Iraq — the one that they are fighting for — is one that to them is going to be worth fighting for,” says Pollack.

While billions of dollars have been put into military operations against ISIS, little has been invested in political change that could end the sense of marginalization felt by Sunnis and in turn, possibly unite them against ISIS. “There should be real reconciliation among the Iraqis… whatever we bring in forces and weapons won’t matter without a political agreement,” says Makki. “If they continue like this, it’s likely that Baghdad could fall.”

TIME jeb bush

Jeb Bush Reverses Himself: ‘I Would Not Have Gone Into Iraq’

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at a town hall meeting in Tempe, Ariz. on May 14, 2015.
Deanna Dent—Reuters Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks at a town hall meeting in Tempe, Ariz. on May 14, 2015.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sought to turn the page on a week of terrible press coverage Thursday, telling a group of Arizona voters that knowing what is known now, he would not have launched the 2003 Iraq War.

“Knowing what we know now I would not have engaged—I would not have gone into Iraq,” Bush said, in reference to his greatest liability—the unpopular war launched by his brother, former President George W. Bush.

It was the latest turn in a tumultuous week that began with an interview with Fox News host Megyn Kelly on Saturday in which he said he would have supported going to war, even knowing that the Iraqi government did not possess weapons of mass destruction. “My mind kind of calculated it differently,” Bush later explained, saying he misheard Kelly’s question.

On Wednesday, Bush dodged the same question Kelly asked him days earlier, saying he wouldn’t answer “hypotheticals” and that the question did a “disservice” to the memories of the 4,491 American war dead.

But that didn’t put the questions to rest, Bush’s Republican opponents lined up to criticize him for the comments, while Democrats gleefully used the opportunity to tie him to his brother.

“If we knew then what we know now and I were the President of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN Tuesday. Sen. Rand Paul told the Associated Press that Bush’s comments represent “a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently.”

“Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq,” Sen. Ted Cruz told The Hill.

Sen. Marco Rubio went even further in an interview Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Not only would I have not been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it. He said so,” he said.

Bush’s reversal may put the controversy to rest temporarily, but it only further highlights the challenges the entire Republican field with respect to talking about the conflict.

In a gaggle with reporters after his remarks, Bush maintained that the war was “worth it” for the families of the war dead.

“It was worth it for those families,” he said. “It was worth it for the people that made major sacrifices. In 2008 Iraq was stable. It was fragile, but it was stable. It was because of the heroic efforts of a lot of people. And re-litigating this and going through hypotheticals I think does no good to them.”

Bush said that after the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the U.S. must “re-engage” in Iraq beyond what President Obama has done.

“I think we need to re-engage and do it in a more forceful way,” Bush said. “The president is very reluctant for whatever reason to make a clear commitment that we should have kept 5,000, 10,000 troops there.”

He acknowledged that there has been success countering ISIS since Obama ordered airstrikes and deployed trainers to assist Iraqi forces last year, but said more has to be done. “We can’t do it by drones. We have to be there to train the military and to do the things that are being done right now. And I believe that if we had stayed the course in that, if we do, we will be successful.”

Read more: Why Presidential Candidates Must Answer Hypotheticals

TIME Foreign Policy

The Republicans’ Iraq Trap

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.
Ricardo Arduengo—AP Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.

Jeb Bush still doesn’t know how to talk about Iraq.

The all-but-certain Republican presidential candidate’s strategy for handling his trickiest political inheritance has swung wildly in recent days, earning criticism from both sides of the aisle.

On Saturday the former Florida governor appeared to say he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq even if he knew weapons of mass destruction weren’t present. By Tuesday, Bush was backpedaling, claiming he “misheard” the question. And by Wednesday he was punting, arguing against answering “hypothetical” questions about a war that claimed 4,491 U.S. lives.

No candidate this year is haunted by that conflict like Bush, who must weigh political and familial considerations. But he’s not alone in his struggles. In a campaign dominated so far by foreign policy themes, GOP presidential hopefuls are increasingly torn between the need to project toughness and the need to acknowledge what many voters see as the defining error of the last Republican commander-in-chief.

It’s a balancing act driven by the demands of the electorate. Years of surveys show the American public’s rejection of a war launched on faulty intelligence: a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found 71% of voters thought the war “wasn’t worth it,” compared to just 22% who thought it was. At the same time, the tumult rippling across the Middle East—from the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) to the unrest in war-torn nations like Libya, Syria and Yemen—has rejuvenated the nation’s hawkish impulses. A succession of polls this year suggest most Americans support sending ground troops to fight ISIS.

As a result, GOP candidates have embraced anew a muscular foreign policy that had atrophied for much of the Obama presidency. Promises to calm the chaos of the Middle East have dominated early candidate cattle calls, while tough talk on Iran has taken the place of Obamacare as a stump speech fixture. Even Sen. Rand Paul, who advocates a restrained foreign policy as part of the party’s more isolationist wing, introduced an amendment to significantly boost the defense budget. After announcing his presidential bid in April, the Kentuckian posed in front of a retired aircraft carrier in the port of Charleston to repeat his call. On a recent trip to South Carolina, Sen. Marco Rubio invoked Liam Neeson’s avenging promise from the movie Taken: “We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

The bellicosity is one element of a broader strategy that includes also blaming President Obama for the mess in the Middle East and tethering Bush to his older brother. “If we knew then what we know now and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN. Paul told the Associated Press that Bush’s comments represent “a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently.”

“Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq,” Sen. Ted Cruz told The Hill.

Rubio went even further in an interview Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Not only would I have not been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it. He said so,” he said.

Turning Iraq into a centerpiece of the campaign is fraught with risk for Republicans, who have wrestled with the demons of a misbegotten war for a decade now. In 2004, the GOP made support for the conflict into a proxy for patriotism and rode the decision to victory in the presidential election. But by 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress amid the persistent casualties and growing sectarian violence sweeping Iraq.

Two years later, Obama’s early opposition to the war helped vault him past Hillary Clinton in their epic primary contest. He then used Sen. John McCain’s outspokenness for the war against him, mocking McCain’s suggestion that there might be an American presence in Iraq for 100 years. In 2012 Obama won re-election while highlighting his commitment to end the war.

But as the stability of Iraq crumbled in the wake of Obama’s troop withdrawal, Republicans sensed they could regain the upper hand. GOP candidates have criticized Obama for not leaving a larger security force in place to support the Iraqi government. Party strategists believe the path to the presidency hinges in part on an ability to disavow George W. Bush’s mistakes while blaming Obama for making the mess much worse.

Recognizing it won’t be easy, some of the party’s presidential contenders are treading lightly. In a speech laying out his foreign policy vision Wednesday, Rubio only briefly alluded to Iraq, implying that Obama’s troop drawdown was too swift and invoking “Afghans worried that America will leave them like we left Iraq.”

The delicate balancing act is sharply different from the strategy employed by the likely Democratic nominee. After years of standing by her vote to authorize the war, Clinton wrote in her 2014 memoir that she “got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

It was a reflection of how the politics of the issue had shifted—and may be shifting still.

TIME Behind the Photos

Ad Agency and Photographer Work to Highlight the Home Front

David Guttenfelder photographed the front lines of an unexpected war zone

Each day, 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide on American soil.

That average, released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013, is at the center of a surprising new campaign, dubbed Mission 22, from advertising agency CP+B and the nonprofit veteran organization Elder Heart. The project is designed “to open the eyes of the American public,” says Daniel Pradilla, an associate creative director at the agency.

With the help of photographer David Guttenfelder, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Associated Press, Mission 22 takes a novel approach to advocacy work by bringing the message directly to its public. “CP+B is a big ad agency that starts national conversations about products,” says Guttenfelder, “and they wanted to do something about this issue. They wanted to see if they could take the same approach to an ad campaign to the [issue of suicide among veterans].”

The campaign is devised around the stories of five veterans — William Busbee, Shawn Bleeker, Ryan Clapper, Brandon Ladner and Clay Ward — who committed suicide after their tours of duty. “More military men and women die at home each day than in our conflicts abroad,” Pradilla tells TIME. “That means that the deadliest battlefields aren’t remote deserts or faraway countries but our own living rooms, bedrooms, backyards and garages. These battlefields are unexpected. That makes you stop and think.”

The best way to convey that message, CP+B found, was to photograph these spaces and put the resulting images on billboards across the nation. “This work brings war to a place that is familiar,” says Pradilla. “Coming home is supposed to be completely safe. But then, you see David’s photographs and read these veterans’ stories, and you realize it’s not.”

Guttenfelder, who resigned from AP last year to go freelance, had wanted to cover the second half of his war story: the return home. When he got back to the U.S., after spending 15 years traveling the world from one hot spot to the next, he brought a group of photographers together, launched the Everyday USA account on Instagram and helped coordinate for the group to do a Veterans Day project with TIME last November.

But Guttenfelder wanted to do more. So, when he was approached by CP+B, he saw an opportunity. “They were looking for a photographer who had the same story [as these veterans] and who could meet the families and understand,” he explains.

The result, on a personal level, stunned Guttenfelder. “When I was meeting the families and going through this, I was surprised how much of a connection I felt with these people who took their lives because of the struggles that they faced when they came home: trying to find purpose, trying to deal with the horrible things that they had seen. [That connection] was more powerful than I had expected.”

“I would never try to compare my experience to someone who fought in a war,” he adds, “but I did spend my entire adult life covering war and violence and tragedy. I had a very clear purpose, a very strong sense of what my identity was. And to come home to the U.S. and to have to reinvent myself, it opened up a door to understand how confusing and difficult and painful it is for [these soldiers] to come back and not know what they’re supposed to do now. I understood it in a different way.”

Guttenfelder’s photographs are a departure for the former wire photographer: they are simple and quiet black-and-white portraits of the spaces where these veterans committed suicide. They tell a story of familiarity — one that anyone could grasp — and that was CP+B’s precise goal.

The advertising agency published Guttenfelder’s photographs in four national newspapers and magazines, and across 300 billboards in the U.S., including five in the towns where these veterans committed suicide. “To put a billboard on the street near the houses where this happened is not just about educating people, it’s about educating the people who go to the grocery store with these families,” says Guttenfelder.

CP+B has also produced a mini-documentary and an interactive website — with calls for action for veterans and their families — with a traveling exhibition planned for later this year.

For Guttenfelder, Mission 22 is also the beginning of his next personal project, one that will deal with suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder — another focus that, for the former conflict photographer, hits close to home.

Find out more about Mission 22.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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