Last night Fox News aired an interview in which Jeb Bush was asked the question about Iraq that every major politician should have answered by now. Somehow it seemed to catch Bush less than completely prepared. His answer generated the expected attacks from Democrats, but even some Republicans were critical. GOP consultant Ana Navarro now says Bush confided to her that he “misheard the question,” which suggests he’ll be clarifying what he really thinks soon.
This was bound to come up before long. The way it’s now playing suggests that Bush — along with many other Republicans — can’t quite figure out how to answer a question that for most people is pretty straightforward.
Here’s what he said in the interview:
Kelly: Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?
Bush: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.
Kelly: You don’t think it was a mistake?
Bush: In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn’t focus on security first, and the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families. By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took places as well: George W. Bush. So, news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.
If you want to believe that Bush “misheard” the question — and thus answered as though the question was “what would you have done then?” instead of “knowing what we know now” — then you’re more generous than I. It’s hard to predict how Bush will answer it the next time he does an interview.
On one hand, it’s unlikely that he’ll deliver an implicit rebuke to his brother and his administration, all the key figures of which continue to argue to this day that the world is still better off for the war having taken place. What’s more, the imperatives of GOP politics push candidates toward tough talk and a refusal to admit that any Republican administration ever made a mistake about anything.
Yet at the same time, there are some prominent Republicans who don’t accept that line. Talk-show host Laura Ingraham said: “You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do.” Byron York wrote: “If Jeb Bush sticks to his position — that he would still authorize war knowing what we know today — it will represent a step backward for the Republican Party.”
And this isn’t a rare opinion among Republicans generally. This poll taken last year found Republicans evenly split on the question, with 46 percent saying the war was worth it and 44 percent saying it wasn’t. If you ask the question by mentioning the cost in money and lives, over 60 percent of Republicans say it wasn’t worth it.
Every Republican candidate is pulled in two directions: do they admit what most Americans and even most Republicans believe, or do they keep up their support for a war that a GOP president launched and that the whole party invested itself in? At the moment, the only GOP candidate who has said it was a mistake is Rand Paul.
Does Bush have a way out? He may well continue to evade. He may say that we wouldn’t have invaded had we known there were no weapons of mass destruction because there wouldn’t have been enough support in Congress for the authorization, as a way of avoiding the question of whether we should have invaded had we known that. The former is a (probably) accurate assessment of the political environment at the time, but it tells us nothing about the candidate’s own perspective and what he’s learned in the time since.
Because of who his brother is, it was to be expected that Bush would be the first to confront this question. But now that it has happened, all the candidates are likely to be asked — including Hillary Clinton. There was no more damaging issue to Clinton in 2008 than her vote to authorize the war. Barack Obama was in the same place as the Democratic electorate at the time, but she struggled to explain why she gave George W. Bush permission to embark on such a disastrous course (today she says she was reluctant to say the war was a mistake while there were still troops there fighting, but now admits that the war, and her vote in favor of it, were wrong). And she could well find herself in conflict with Democratic voters again.
Much attention has been paid to her supposed recent moves to the left, but all of that has occurred on issues like same-sex marriage and immigration, where she was always roughly in line with Democrats and has shifted with them as the whole party has moved left. Foreign policy, on the other hand, is the area where Clinton has been more conservative throughout her career, a hawk in a party dominated by doves. There may well be foreign policy issues that come up between now and next November — on Iran, Syria, or anyplace else — where she takes a position at odds with liberal Democrats. That could be a genuine problem for her. But it probably won’t amount to as big a problem as Jeb Bush now faces.