Any Republican hoping to become the first Republican president since George W. Bush should have a well-rehearsed opinion about the wisdom of the Iraq war, and should be able to deliver it in response to an unambiguous question like, “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?"
This is especially the case if you’re hoping to become the first Republican president since George W. Bush and you also happen to be George W. Bush’s brother.
Instead, after facing the most predictable question of the election cycle, Jeb Bush spent two days stepping on rakes before before finally landing on an answer that probably made George W. himself proud.
“If we’re going to get into hypotheticals I think it does a disservice for a lot of people that sacrificed a lot,” Jeb said at a town hall meeting in Nevada on Wednesday. “Going back in time and talking about hypotheticals—what would have happened, what could have happened—I think, does a disservice for them. What we ought to be focusing on is what are the lessons learned.”
This premise—that to even engage an awkward subject would in itself dishonor the troops—is vintage George W. Bush, and would be clever enough to help Jeb evade further inquiries about the war if Jeb were already the president. Instead, he’s one lonely candidate in a field of Republicans who have already grappled with the question more forthrightly, and won’t let him get away with being mealymouthed. Last year, in a live Facebook chat at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Hillary Clinton explained that while she knew the Iraq war was a mistake back in 2008, a reflexive support-the-troops mantra reinforced her caginess about it, and helped drag down her unsuccessful campaign. I expect a similar dynamic applies today.
But there’s a bigger, subtler problem with Jeb’s argument, which will force him to address the question more directly. The idea that getting into hypotheticals "does a disservice” to the troops proves too much, and thus doesn’t really provide him any cover at all. Without realizing it, he’s already revealed that he believes the Iraq war was wrongly authorized. All that’s left is for him to explain why, and to prevent the ensuing family drama from spiraling out of control.
Bush says he doesn’t want to entertain hypotheticals because hypotheticals don’t serve the troops well. But imagine the Iraq war hadn’t been a disaster. The intelligence was flawed and abused, yes, and there was no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons program—but the regime change part had gone smoothly, and American soldiers were considered heroes around the world. Would entertaining hypotheticals about intelligence failures disservice them? Or, more to the point, imagine Bush were prepared to say the war was worth fighting, in spite of the false pretenses. That dead and injured soldiers sacrificed for a worthy cause, even if it wasn’t the cause that the public initially sent them to Iraq to address. Would that disservice them?
It’s clearly not the hypothetical that harms the troops—hypothetically, if troops were made of potpourri, Iraq would smell terrific—it’s only certain answers to certain hypothetical questions that “disservice” the troops, because some of those answers imply that they died, or lost limbs, or years of their lives, for a mistake.
The only way to credit Jeb’s argument is if you assume his answer to the hypothetical question is that he would not have authorized the war. By adopting his brother’s tactics, all he’s done for himself is guarantee that some reporter or interviewer will pick up this thread and pull and pull until the pretense unravels.
When that happens, it’ll touch off open political battle between his brother’s loyalists and his own. Few living Republicans will ever admit openly that the Iraq war was a mistake even on its own terms, but the idea that the war was a mistake because of the intelligence failures—that it would’ve been the right call if the story the Bush administration told about the need to invade had held up—is quickly becoming the Republican Party consensus.
Jeb is harder pressed than almost anyone in the party to adopt this consensus, for obvious reasons. Perhaps the only way for him to do so at this point, without opening a brand new pandoras box, would be for George W. to stand with his brother and admit his mistake as well.