On Tuesday night in California, Jeb Bush tried the once-unthinkable: He picked a fight with Hillary Clinton on Iraq.
"It was a case of blind haste to get out and to call the tragic consequences somebody else’s problem,” Bush said of the Obama administration's decision to pull troops out of Iraq. “Rushing away from danger can be every bit as unwise as rushing into danger, and the costs have been grievous.”
What Bush is up to isn't hard to figure out. Taking on Clinton on really anything is good politics for someone who wants to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. And Republican candidates and GOP voters believe Clinton is deeply vulnerable on foreign policy issues she oversaw during her time as Obama's secretary of state -- from the Benghazi attacks to the rise of ISIS.
So, Bush's attack isn't terribly surprising. What makes it profoundly interesting, however, is his last name. In case you have been hiding under a pile of coats for the last 15 years, it was Jeb's brother, George W. Bush, who led the country into war against Iraq under pretenses that were later proven to be false. And it was George W. Bush who, as president, began the process of drawing down American forces in Iraq.
Earlier this year, Jeb had been tripped up by the complexity of the Iraq war as an issue, spending a week unable to come up a cogent answer to the question of whether, knowing what we know now, he would have invaded Iraq. He sought to put the past in the past quickly in this foreign-policy focused speech, which was delivered at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially. Yet in a long experience that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks, one moment stands out in memory as the turning point we had all been waiting for. And that was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory. It was a success, brilliant, heroic, and costly. And this nation will never forget the courage and sacrifice that made it all possible.
So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary? That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well.
Bush's message? Sure, mistakes were made getting into Iraq. But eventually America triumphed. Then President Obama and Clinton screwed it all up and gave us the Islamic State, which is and will continue to be a major threat to the United States well into the next president's term.
That's a tough argument to make -- particularly because the public generally believes 1) the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and 2) the blame for getting us into the war lies with George W. Bush (although Obama's share in the blame game is rising.) It's an even tougher argument to make if your last name is "Bush" and you have said that your older brother (aka George W.) is one of your top advisers on U.S.-Israel policy.
The calculation by the Bush campaign is that he can't be cowed from confronting Clinton by his last name or his older brother. Which makes sense. I am just not sure whether a Bush can sell the public on the idea that the problems in Iraq are the fault of Clinton without acknowledging, in a much more detailed way, the role his brother's administration played in destabilizing the region too.
Such aggressiveness -- particularly on this issue -- is a gamble for the Bush campaign. But if Jeb is ever going to be able to operate free of his brother's legacy -- something that remains a real and unanswered question -- then he needs to stand up at some point and try to frame that legacy, particularly in Iraq, in the best possible light.
Tuesday's speech was an attempt to do just that.