TEMPE, Ariz. — Jeb Bush on Thursday sought to untie himself from a week of rhetorical contortions over a deeply unpopular war his brother began, saying at a campaign-style stop here that he would not have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq had he known about the intelligence failures at the time.
“Knowing what we now know, what would you have done? I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq,” Bush said at Four Peaks Brewery in this Phoenix suburb.
Bush’s statement capped a painful episode in his all-but-
declared presidential campaign. For four straight days, he gave wavering, uncertain and incongruous answers to questions about the Iraq war as he struggled with whether and how much to differentiate himself from his older brother, former president George W. Bush. As he said here Thursday, “I don’t go out of my way to disagree with my brother.”
Jeb Bush hopes his latest comments, which are in line with the views of most of his likely Republican primary opponents, settle the issue of Iraq for now.
But his position is at odds with the views of some of his foreign policy advisers, many of them veterans of his brother’s administration who remain some of the Iraq invasion’s staunchest defenders.
Over the course of a long and bruising campaign, Jeb Bush is also certain to face more questions about how he would be a different president from George W. Bush, the last Republican to serve in the White House — not only on foreign policy but also on domestic issues such as the privatization of Social Security and the Wall Street bank bailout.
“There’s plenty of time for the Bush comparisons that I’m sure you’ll find plenty of people who want to make,” former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, also a likely presidential candidate, told reporters Thursday at the Republican National Committee meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Naturally, Democrats are among those jumping at a chance to compare Jeb Bush with his brother, who left office with dismal approval ratings.
“From the war in Iraq to privatizing Social Security and everywhere in between, the Bush brothers have been in lock step,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC.
“Just like Jeb said: ’Til death do them part.’ ”
Arizona Democratic Party Chair Alexis Tameron told reporters that the Bush campaign is “like pitching a sequel to a terrible movie, only worse. But the American people have already written the Yelp review on that one.”
Even within the choreographed confines of his own campaign, Bush couldn’t escape the comparisons. Introducing Bush at the Tempe brewery event, a local Chamber of Commerce official said, “He was the 43rd governor of Florida. Interesting number” — a reference, of course, to George W., the 43rd president.
For Jeb Bush, the danger is that his verbal gymnastics over Iraq may lead Republicans to conclude he does not yet have a precise worldview. By contrast, a top rival, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), laid out a muscular, if nonspecific, foreign policy Wednesday in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In Tempe, Bush tried to explain his difficulty articulating his views on Iraq as the result of being reluctant to say anything that might suggest he was ungrateful for the sacrifice of the U.S. armed forces and their families during 12 years of war.
“It’s very hard for me to say that their lives were lost in vain,” Bush said. “In fact, they weren’t. We have the greatest military in the face of the earth.” He added, “Their sacrifice was worth honoring, not depreciating.”
Later, answering questions from reporters, Bush said he had not spoken to his brother in recent days. “I am loyal to him,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to go through every place that I disagree with him.”
Bush called for increasing U.S. presence in Iraq to help rid the country of the “barbaric Islamic threat.” He told reporters, “I think we need to reengage and do it in a more forceful way.”
Advisers to rival GOP campaigns said privately they have been stunned by Bush’s incapacity to effectively parry questions about Iraq — one said Bush was “not ready for prime time” — considering his brother’s legacy has long been considered perhaps his greatest liability in the 2016 race.
When reporters asked Santorum whether he thought Bush had finally put the Iraq issue to rest, the former senator responded, “I don’t know how that was a hard question.”
Bush contended that in 2008, when his brother was preparing to turn over the White House to Barack Obama, Iraq was stable. “It was fragile, but it was stable,” he said.
Last November, George W. Bush told CBS News that he thought invading Iraq “was the right decision. My regret is that a violent group of people has risen up again,” a reference to the Islamic State terror group.
Jeb Bush has a 21-member team of foreign policy counselors, including veterans of his father’s and brother’s administrations. Their views differ regarding Iraq — a contrast of opinions that Bush aides say he welcomes.
The group includes Paul Wolfowitz, a neoconservative who as a deputy defense secretary was a chief architect of the Iraq war and remains a staunch defender.
Another adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, George W. Bush’s former national security adviser, conceded in an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2013, “The war went too long and cost too much — in the lives and treasure of Americans, our coalition partners and Iraqis.”
But Hadley also wrote that the 2007 troop “surge” that sent an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq “turned around a war that we were not winning.”
Other prominent members of the second Bush administration who are not directly consulting Jeb Bush have stood by the war. Karl Rove declined in April to apologize for the war when asked to do so by an Iraq war veteran.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine infantry veteran of the Iraq war who represents the Phoenix area, attacked Bush for seeking counsel from “cronies” like Wolfowitz, saying it “more than ever makes me want to question whether he has the right leadership potential to be president.”
Pointing to shortcomings at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Gallego said, “We’re the ones who still suffer the consequences from the Bush family’s mistakes.”
O’Keefe reported from Washington.