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Jeb Bush and Others Learned Nothing from Iraq

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Jeb Bush began a talk the other day by addressing the issue of his brother George, noted architect of the Iraq war, and he did not shrink from the challenge. "I can't deny the fact that I love my family," announced Jeb.

So if you suspected that the Bush Thanksgivings in Kennebunkport resemble "August: Osage County" -- with lots of screaming, sobbing and clawing -- you probably feel pretty silly right now.

On a more pertinent question -- whether the war was a wise idea -- the answer is not so clear. The former governor of Florida first said that, knowing what we know now, he would have favored the invasion. He then claimed he misunderstood the question.

Had he known that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, Jeb said later, "I would not have gone into Iraq." But he mainly wants to avoid the whole issue, which he dismisses as "a hypothetical."

If you're looking for deep, searching reflection on the Iraq war, the 2016 presidential campaign may not be the best place to look. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last year found that 71 percent of Americans and 44 percent of Republicans think the war "wasn't worth it."

But nearly all Republicans and many Democrats supported it at the time. So the less said on the subject, most of the candidates doubtless feel, the better. Most prefer to "focus on the future," as Jeb urged.

This desire not to dwell on the past often comes from the same candidates who invoke the Munich agreement of 1938, a failed attempt to appease Adolf Hitler. But how a candidate assesses the lessons of the past is one of the best ways to get a sense of how a president would behave in the future -- which is also "a hypothetical."


Among Republicans, there has never been much interest in acknowledging what a catastrophe the Iraq war was. In 2012, Rick Perry said the U.S. should send troops back to Iraq. In 2008, Mike Huckabee was still insisting Hussein might have had WMD: "Just because you didn't find every Easter egg didn't mean that it wasn't planted." In 2012, Mitt Romney affirmed, "It was the right decision to go into Iraq."

Some current candidates have been a bit less enthusiastic. Ted Cruz tiptoed, noting that WMD were the reason for our invasion. "Without that predicate, it is difficult to imagine the decision would have been made to go into Iraq, and that predicate proved erroneous," he said, in a masterpiece of sterile verbosity. Marco Rubio said he would not have attacked Iraq based on today's knowledge -- though in March, he defended the invasion.

But neither they nor any of the others -- with the obvious exception of Rand Paul -- have renounced the basic worldview that produced it. The Republicans almost unanimously favor an aggressive stance based on brawny slogans and an assumption of American omnipotence.

Scott Walker sounds as though he misses George W. Bush: "I want a leader who is willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us." Rubio says America must have the mightiest military forces in the world, as if we don't already.

Paul is the only entrant willing to disavow the reckless adventurism of the Bush-Cheney years. When other Republicans blamed Barack Obama for the rise of the Islamic State, Paul disagreed, faulting those who mounted the Iraq war for "the chaos that is in the Middle East."


He's an outlier, and not just in his party. Hillary Clinton, who as a senator voted for the war, concedes she "got it wrong." But if the experience made her reassess her basic assumptions, she has kept it secret.

The unanticipated consequences of the Iraq invasion didn't keep her from pushing Obama to use air power to topple Moammar Gadhafi -- which led to another unanticipated disaster, in Libya and beyond. Clinton insists on sticking to that same approach in spite of all the times it has let us down.

Since 2001, our interventions have not only fallen short, but blown up in our faces. What should be clear is that when presidents resort to military force, they usually lack an understanding of the countries they attack, a due regard for the commitment required and a full appreciation of all the things that could go very wrong.

If the candidates haven't learned those lessons yet, they'll probably get another chance.

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