Like all Republican presidential candidates, Jeb Bush is opposed to the world powers nuclear agreement with Iran, and has denounced it in withering terms as a “bad,” “horrific” deal. Late last week, he offered some valuable perspective on what counts in his mind as a “good deal” in global affairs, when, speaking at a foreign policy forum in Iowa, he argued, “I’ll tell you, taking out Saddam Hussein turned out to be a pretty good deal.”
Because almost nobody in America thinks the Iraq War was a particularly good deal, the political media is holding his comment up as a gaffe. But against the backdrop of GOP opposition to the Iran agreement, it’s much more revelatory than that. It crystallizes the increasingly open secret in the world of foreign affairs that the “pretty good deal” we got in Iraq and the “better deal” Iran foes allude to so frequently are actually the same deal. Not in every particular—nobody of any prominence on the right is currently arguing for a wholesale invasion and occupation of Iran. But forced regime change was what we got in Iraq, and it’s what the supporters of the war there ultimately want in Iran.
There’s a danger whenever Bush is asked to comment about national security or Middle East policy that his comments will stem less from any considered position than from the poisoned soils of family loyalty and legacy redemption. For precisely that reason, it took him a week this past spring to make the easy migration from outright support for the Iraq invasion to conditional opposition (“knowing what we know now”).
But Bush has now rolled out, and adhered to, a tangle of views that could be mistaken for his brother’s—void the Iran agreement and possibly attack Iran, rescind President Barack Obama’s 2009 executive order banning torture, and possibly send thousands of U.S. troops back into Iraq—and none of them is even remotely controversial among his co-partisans.
Republicans of a neoconservative bent grow prickly when accused of promising a “better deal” in bad faith, or of harboring ulterior motives, and they became especially prickly when Obama points it out, as he did in a resolute speech at American University earlier this month. What makes their thin skin so odd is that these motives aren’t even really ulterior. They’re articulated unabashedly by many, many conservatives all the time. Republican presidential candidates, including Bush, have expressed interest in military strikes to set back Iran's nuclear activities. Conservative writer Norman Podhoretz has been arguing for them for years.
That this view is widely shared on the right emerges as well from the cold logic of the multilateral negotiations themselves, and from the growing consensus among Republicans that the next U.S. president should walk away from the agreement as a first order of business.
This matrix is slightly oversimplified, but only slightly. Thanks to the agreement, there’s a decent chance that Iran won’t produce a nuclear weapon for many years. If the agreement collapses, the diplomatic channel will essentially be closed, Iran will probably manufacture a weapon, and the drumbeat for airstrikes will intensify. That’s a cardinal truth, no matter who violates the agreement. The ancillary benefit for hawkish Iran foes is that if Iran breaches the deal, it will provide U.S. policymakers with a robust rhetorical foundation for demanding the reimposition of sanctions, and coordinated airstrikes. Republicans are effectively saying that this isn't good enough, and that we should void the deal ourselves—sacrifice all of that good will—to precipitate the crisis more rapidly.
That’s what Jeb Bush meant, in his foreign policy address last week, when he said, “If the Congress does not reject this deal, then the damage must be undone by the next president—and it will be my intention to begin that process immediately.” Ripping up the global powers agreement is the predicate for the “pretty good deal” Republicans have in mind. It’s the whole show.