After floundering around for days on the Iraq question, Jeb Bush has finally come around to the position that we all knew he’d ultimately feel compelled to adopt. Via Philip Rucker, he has now flatly stated that he would not have gone to war in Iraq, as his brother did, if he’d known that the intelligence was wrong about the threat Iraq posed:
“Knowing what we now know, I would not have engaged,” Bush said at a campaign stop in Tempe. “I would not have gone into Iraq.”
Bush said the lives of U.S. armed forces were not lost in vain – “their sacrifice was worth honoring, not depreciating” – but that given the intelligence failures that have since been established, he would not have led the country into war in Iraq.
Jeb’s contortions make good fodder for political reporters (who have mined the unique situation he finds himself in as George W. Bush’s brother) and Democratic political operatives (who are tormenting Jeb for flip-flopping and reviviving bad memories of the aforementioned George W. Bush). Jeb’s Iraq follies are a real political story on their own terms.
But ultimately, this whole line of questioning for Jeb, while creating untold problems for him, is also having the unintended effect of airbrushing out of the picture some really crucial historical facts about the run-up to the Iraq War. And those historical facts indict the woeful performance of Democrats such as Hillary Clinton as well as Republicans, which means that both parties have a strong incentive not to revive them.
The basic premise that this challenge to Jeb reinforces is that the Iraq War happened only because of bad intelligence. George W. Bush was misled by intelligence failures, and it still gives him a “sickening feeling.” In this framing, the question becomes: Will you admit that you were misled into supporting a war that everyone now agrees in hindsight was an unnecessary and tragic mistake?
But this leaves out a big part of the story of the run-up to the war, which is that some people were arguing at the time against invading Iraq, on the grounds that the evidence was all right there in plain sight that Iraq did not pose a threat imminent enough to justify an invasion. Some people (I’m not claiming to be among them) were publicly shouting themselves hoarse, pointing out at the time that, at the very least, there were serious questions about whether Iraq really posed the threat the Bush administration claimed it did.
The question that is being posed to Jeb — would you have gone into Iraq, knowing what we know now? — is not really a hard one. As Brian Beutler notes: “the idea that the war was a mistake because of the intelligence failures — that it would’ve been the right call if the story the Bush administration told about the need to invade had held up — is quickly becoming the Republican Party consensus.”
That’s why GOP candidates like Chris Christie and Ted Cruz both rushed to declare they wouldn’t have gone in, based on what we know now. That is also the line taken last year by Hillary Clinton, who wrote that she made the “best decision I could with the information I had,” while admitting: “But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”
This question is uniquely hard for Jeb in particular, because answering it in the negative makes for a storyline along the lines of, “Jeb repudiates brother’s war.” Now Jeb, too, has joined the consensus position. But even for Jeb, this isn’t really a gigantic substantive concession. It’s only a peculiarly difficult one for him due to the unfortunate fraternal optics at play.
Ultimately, whether it’s Jeb or Hillary or anyone else answering the question this way, it isn’t really the question that matters most. Rather, the better question is: Are you willing to admit that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq based on what was known at the time? Or at least that those making the case against the invasion at the time got it right, and that you got it wrong, even though you had access to the same evidence, in real time, that they did?
I’m not saying it was a slam-dunk case based on contemporaneous evidence that going in was unjustified or ill-advised. I’m simply saying that it shouldn’t be forgotten that there were real grounds for suspecting this very well might be the case, and those making this argument were marginalized or largely ignored by leading members of both parties. Public officials had all kinds of motives for closing their ears to that argument. Perhaps some Republicans genuinely believed the intel warning of WMDs was too strong to ignore. Perhaps others genuinely thought it was justified regardless of the possibility that Iraq didn’t pose the threat that was advertised. Perhaps many Democrats who backed the war also genuinely subscribed to those arguments. Or perhaps some of them didn’t want to buck the rush to war out of fear, and caved in the face of the extraordinary public relations campaign mounted by the Bush administration and its allies.
But a real accounting of what happened does not end with the question that has temporarily made life so miserable for Jeb Bush. Josh Marshall suggests today that Jeb’s latest concession is only the beginning, and might lead to an open-ended discussion of the real mistakes — if that’s even the right word — that were made in the run-up to Iraq. I hope so. But I’m not optimistic. Neither party — and let’s not even get started on the role news organizations played in that whole tale — has a real interest in seeing that happen.