Iraq Question Is Not Jeb's Alone to Field
There is no Republican presidential candidate for whom the Iraq War question is more personal and more complicated than Jeb Bush, who demonstrated this week the difficulty in establishing himself as his own man without throwing his brother under the bus, or keeping him too close.
But the same question has the potential to put all of the Republican presidential candidates in a bind as the party, with the exception of Rand Paul, seeks to hold up its hawkish mantle amid public concern over growing, and gruesome threats while also reconciling past mistakes.
The question also comes as a distraction for Republicans as they are largely united in blaming President Obama for perceived foreign policy failures. And, while Bush has an intimate connection to the Iraq War because of his brother, and has had the most time to prepare for questions about the decision to invade, Hillary Clinton is the only person running for president who voted for the invasion. She has, however, acknowledged it as a mistake she would not repeat.
Notably, Bush’s rivals for the GOP nomination, clearly hoping to draw a distinct contrast with him, are speaking up in opposition to the invasion -- with the benefit of hindsight. It appears to be a remarkable shift for the party, which has hardly touted its opposition to the war in the past.
“If you're talking about Iraq, you're losing,” said one Republican policy adviser.
In an interview that aired Monday on Fox News, Megyn Kelly asked Bush whether he would have invaded Iraq “knowing what we know now.”
“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” the former Florida governor said. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
On Tuesday, Bush attempted to walk the remark back, saying in an interview with Sean Hannity that he had “interpreted the question wrong.” But Bush would not get into what he might have decided.
“I don’t know what that decision would have been,” he said. “That’s a hypothetical.”
Bush mopped up his remarks again Wednesday, clarifying that he did not answer the question because it “does a disservice” to those Americans who served in the war.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN Tuesday that while “we don’t get to replay history,” he would not have gone to war if he knew then what he knows now.
When asked the same question in a Fox News interview, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, “Of course not.” Because the “predicate of the war” was based on false intelligence, he added, “there’s no way we would have gone to war with Iraq, and we know that now in hindsight.”
Ben Carson, in an interview with CNBC, described the Iraq War as unnecessary.
And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is also thinking about running, put it this way in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch: “If the question is ‘If there were not weapons of mass destruction, should we have gone?,’ the answer would’ve been no.”
Only Sen. Marco Rubio has indicated he might still support invading Iraq, although some of his recent statements have sounded contradictory. At a Council on Foreign Relations event Wednesday, the freshman Florida senator said he would not have invaded had he known they did not possess weapons of mass destruction.
But, when asked on Fox News in March whether he thought it was a “mistake” to have launched the war, Rubio responded: “No, I don’t believe it was. The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”
Alex Conant, a spokesman for Rubio, said the candidate’s statement Wednesday did not imply he thought the Iraq War was a mistake.
The same issue has tripped up Republican presidential candidates before. In a 2008 primary debate, Mitt Romney said: “It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now.” But as a candidate in 2012, he told MSNBC: “If we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction … obviously, we would not have gone in.”
The question hasn’t exclusively vexed Republicans. Hillary Clinton was dogged in the 2008 Democratic primary by her vote as a senator in 2002 to authorize the invasion, and Barack Obama capitalized on it.
“I was opposed to Iraq from the start,” he said during their first head-to-head debate, “and I say that not just to look backwards, but also to look forwards, because I think what the next president has to show is the kind of judgment that will ensure that we are using our military power wisely.”
But Clinton did not apologize for the vote during the primary, nor did she characterize it as a “mistake” until much later—a decision, she said at a forum last year, she made out of respect to those who served, much as Jeb Bush said Wednesday in Nevada.
Roughly 12 years after her vote, Clinton finally described her support for the war as a “mistake,” writing in her memoir, “Hard Choices,” that she came to “deeply regret” her vote for the invasion.
In his own book, George W. Bush conceded that the intelligence used to justify the war was faulty, and said he wanted to learn how to “prevent a similar mistake in the future.” Jeb Bush has invoked this assessment in attempting to explain his own position on the matter.
The question, as part of a broader national security approach, might be as relevant and pressing as ever for Republicans seeking the presidency. Public opinion and escalating global events, particularly involving ISIS, have moved the issue of intervention into the spotlight. Americans’ concerns about terrorism now rank as high as their concerns about the economy, according to a Pew Research study.
Republicans have been united in attacking Obama for what they believe is a weak and reluctant approach to foreign policy—from failing to arm Syrian rebels early enough, to negotiating with Iran over its nuclear capabilities, to tense relations with Israel. When it comes to such criticism, they have been adamant about focusing on the future instead of the past. With a Bush in the race, the party’s own foreign policy past has come back to haunt it.
Some Republicans might feel a sense of deja vu. In 2012, the GOP struggled to attack Obama on the Affordable Care Act, a key campaign issue, because Romney had successfully pushed for universal health coverage as governor of Massachusetts. This time, Republicans hope to home in on foreign policy and national security to diminish Obama’s accomplishments and take on former secretary of state Clinton — but that strategy will be complicated if voters too closely associate Jeb Bush – and fellow Republicans -- with his brother’s unpopular war.
“The problem here is that this becomes a relitigation of the past and not his own record, but instead his brother’s,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who worked as a senior adviser to Romney in 2012. “The big challenge for Jeb Bush is that for this campaign to get on more favorable terrain for him, it has to be about his plans for the future.”
In New Hampshire last month, Bush sought to put the past in the rear-view mirror.
“In a world of deep insecurity, focusing on the past is not really relevant. What’s relevant is: What’s the path of American going forward?” he said when asked about his brother’s foreign policy. “As we pull back, the voids are filled with new asymmetric threats. … That’s far different from the ’90s, that’s far different from the early 2000s. This is what we confront now, so getting into the differences between previous presidents, I don’t think is particularly relevant.”