In the early months of his candidacy, Jeb Bush fumbled whenever he faced extremely predictable questions about his brother’s foreign policy. When asked about Iraq again at last week’s debate, he said that, knowing what we know now, “it was a mistake,” then inelegantly pivoted from praising veterans to blaming Obama for the current situation in the Middle East. This week Bush debuted a new stance: Whatever mistakes President George W. Bush made along the way, the Iraq War ultimately turned out for the best (at least until President Obama and Hillary Clinton messed it all up).
On Thursday in Iowa, he even used one of the most notorious lines from his brother’s presidency. “I’ve been critical and I think people have every right to be critical of decisions that were made,” Bush said at a Q&A hosted by Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security. “In 2009, Iraq was fragile but secure. [The] mission was accomplished in the way that there was security there and it was because of the heroic efforts of the men and women in the United States military that it was so.”
Bush also declared, “Taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal.” He said it was a mistake to stop the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ metadata because there’s no evidence that “civil liberties were violated, that people’s privacy was violated.” He defended the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, saying he’s been there and “this is not a torture chamber.”
Torture is one point where Jeb slightly disagrees with W. He thinks “torture is not appropriate,” and he credited his brother with ending enhanced interrogation techniques (which the George W. Bush administration initially authorized). “The change of policy that my brother did and then was put into executive order form by [President Obama] was the proper thing to do,” he explained. But Bush wouldn’t commit to keeping that executive order in place, saying, “I don’t want to make a definitive, blanket kind of statement.”
In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Tuesday, Bush argued that President Obama and Hillary Clinton should be blamed for the current situation in Iraq, not his brother. “Why was the success of the [2007 troop] surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary?” Bush said. “And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.”
Trying to turn one of his biggest liabilities into a problem for Clinton is a bold strategy, but so far there isn’t much evidence that it’s working. Following Bush’s remarks, a number of people pointed out that the withdrawal was his brother’s idea. “I remind everybody that us leaving at the end of 2011 was negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration. That was always the plan, we had promised them that we would respect their sovereignty,” said U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno, an architect of the surge.
And The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins argued that, while Clinton “played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal,” that stemmed from a “disastrously managed war itself.” Plus, she wanted to leave some troops in Iraq:
By all accounts, she was one of the people inside the Administration who advocated for keeping a residual force in Iraq. “Hillary very much wanted to keep troops in the country,” James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador to Iraq at the time, told me. This does not amount, in Jeb’s words, to “standing by” while Iraq burned.
When asked about that point on Thursday, Bush called it an “aggressive effort to rewrite history,” saying it was obvious that Obama needed to renegotiate the Bush administration’s agreement.
Bush’s nuanced (or rather, factually shaky) argument may win over some Republicans, but convincing America that Obama and Clinton deserve more blame for the Iraq War fallout than the president who started it is a tall order. It seems the only mission Jeb accomplished this week was providing sound bites for attack ads linking him to his brother.