(Mary Altaffer/AP)

Charlie Rose: “If you look at the Iraq war, after finding out there were no weapons of mass destruction, would you, if you knew that, have been in favor of the Iraqi invasion?”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “Well, not only would I not have been in favor of it. President Bush would not have been in favor of it, and he said so.”

— exchange at the Council on Foreign Relations, May 13, 2015

This exchange was prompted by the apparent flub by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), the brother of former president George W. Bush, in answering a similar question. It took Jeb Bush several days to answer that he would not have invaded.

Oddly, most of the news reporting on Rubio’s comment has truncated it, leaving off the last part. So his quote has appeared in news reports like this:  “Well, not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it.”

This makes it seem as if Rubio is speculating on how the former president would react. But actually, his full statement (“and he said so”) indicates that Rubio believes that the former president has already made his position clear. If that’s the case, it would make it doubly strange that Jeb Bush would tie himself in knots for several days until he, too, came out and said he would not have invaded.

What’s the evidence that the former president has said he would not have invaded if he knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction?

The Facts

We first tracked down Bush’s 2010 memoir, “Decision Points,” and looked at the sections on Iraq. Bush certainly made clear that he was deeply troubled by the fact no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, given that that was offered as a central rationale for the invasion:

“No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do. The false intelligence proved to be a massive blow to our credibility — my credibility — that would shake the confidence of the American people.”

Bush also expressed regret that his administration was not better prepared to deal with the deteriorating security situation in Iraq — and said officials should have had a fuller discussion about the possible consequences of disbanding the Iraqi army and approving a de-Baathification policy (which fueled the insurgency).

But at the same time, Bush celebrated the fact that, despite those missteps, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein no longer held power:

“The nature of history is that we know only the consequences of the action we took. But inaction would have had consequences, too. Imagine what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein still ruling Iraq. He would still be threatening his neighbors, sponsoring terror and piling bodies into mass graves.”

Bush added that sanctions against Iraq eventually would have crumbled and Hussein would have once again tried to acquire nuclear weapons, possibly sparking an arms race with Iran. He added:

“Instead, as a result of our actions in Iraq, one of America’s most committed and dangerous enemies stopped threatening us forever. The most volatile region in the world lost one of its greatest sources of violence and mayhem.”

That does not sound like any regrets — or second thoughts.

Indeed, in his 2014 book, “41,” about his father, former president George H.W. Bush, the younger Bush went even further to make clear that he thought he had made the right decision. He again noted that the United States found evidence that Hussein “had the capacity to make chemical and biological weapons” and intended to restart his nuclear program. And then he added:

“One thing is certain: The Iraqi people, the United States and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein in power. I believe the decision that Dad made in 1991 was correct — and I believe the same is true of the decision I made a dozen years later.”

As far as we can tell, those are the most definitive public statements made by the former president on his decision to invade Iraq. Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote an interesting article in which he quoted some former Bush administration officials as saying they believe that, if time could be wound backwards, Bush would not have ordered an attack if he knew the regime possessed no illicit weapons.

Spokesman Ari Fleischer: “I just don’t think he would have gone to war. I think he would have turned up the heat on Saddam, but I don’t think he would have gone to war.”

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage:  “I’m convinced that President Bush would not have done it absent W.M.D.”

Senior adviser Karl Rove: “Would the Iraq war have occurred without W.M.D? I doubt it.”

But as Baker noted, others higher up in the decision-making — such as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — have shown no such regrets and insist the invasion was still justified even without finding weapons of mass destruction.

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who was personally the closest to the former president over his two terms, echoed Bush’s sentiments in her own 2011 memoir, “No Higher Honor.” Rice was Bush’s national security adviser during the invasion of Iraq. She wrote:

“After 9/11, Saddam in possession of WMD in the world’s most volatile region was a terrifying prospect; the Middle East would be a less frightening place without him. I still believe that the latter is true. I have many regrets about the run-up to the war, but I’m not sorry that we overthrew Saddam. And I’m grateful that today’s concern is not an impending nuclear arms race between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.”

Indeed, the only senior decision-maker in the Bush administration who has expressed the view that better intelligence on Iraq’s weapons stockpiles would have made a difference was then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. In 2004, Powell told The Washington Post that “absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus; it changes the answer you get” on whether to push for an invasion. His comment infuriated Bush at the time — and Powell arguably was not part of Bush’s inner circle. (As Bush put it in his memoir, “I admired Colin, but it sometimes seemed like the State Department he led wasn’t fully on board with my philosophy and policies.”)

(Note that all of these officials acknowledge that intelligence claiming Iraq had an active WMD program in 2003 was wrong. Please don’t be confused by reports of the later discovery of old weapons manufactured before 1991.)

We sought a comment from Bush’s office on whether we had missed any comments that would justify Rubio’s statement, but did not get a response.

We also asked Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant, whether he could point to any statements. “I don’t have anything to add,” he replied. “As you noted, President Bush has said he regrets that the intel was bad, and obivously WMDs was the primary reason given for the invasion. I don’t think anybody believes we would have invaded like we did if we’d known Saddam didn’t have WMDs.”

In an interview on Fox News Sunday on May 17, after The Fact Checker made inquiries about his statement, Rubio expanded a bit on his answer at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the president had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction at the time, you still would have had to deal with Saddam Hussein,” he said. “But the process would have been different. I doubt very seriously that the president would have gotten, for example, congressional approval to move forward with an invasion had they known there were no weapons of mass destruction…. I don’t think George Bush would have moved forward on the invasion, and he certainly wouldn’t have had congressional approval.”

The Pinocchio Test

We can find no evidence to justify Rubio’s claim that former president Bush has said that he would not have invaded Iraq if he had known no weapons of mass destruction would have been found. Rather, he and most of his top aides have insisted that the invasion was still justified despite the failure to find such weapons.

Rubio’s new explanation falls more in the realm of speculation (“I don’t think”) and suggests that even if the president had pressed forward, he would not have received congressional approval. That may be correct. But Rubio’s initial claim was simply false. The former president has never suggested he would not have invaded Iraq if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction; instead, as recently as 2014, he has insisted his decision to invade was correct.

Four Pinocchios

 


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