Jeb Bush's stumbling, roller-skating-across-ice attempts to say what he thought of the Iraq War have created an unexpected opening in the invisible primary. One by one, Bush's likely rivals have been asked whether they would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. So far, they've all come out against it.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has long said he opposed the war, has come out with the most brio. "To say that nothing would happen differently means we’re going to get George Bush 3," he told Associated Press reporter Steve Peoples yesterday. "That’s a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently."
Today, in a fresh interview with CNN, Paul went on at length, urging the media to keep asking Bush and other candidates what they thought of Iraq, of the 2011 Libya intervention, of Syria. "I think there's a consistent theme here that every candidate should be asked," he said, "and that is: Is it a good idea to go into the Middle East, topple governments, and hope for something better out of the chaos? Recent history seems to suggest you get something worse."
When CNN's Wolf Blitzer prodded Paul on Saddam's alleged WMD, saying that intelligence experts had told Bush of a mounting danger, Paul doubled down.
"We could say the same for Assad until two years ago," Paul said. "He had stockpiles of chemical weapons. The question is their ability to use the weapons, their proclivity to use the weapons, and also what comes after. People have to ask this question. The first George Bush, Jeb Bush's dad, thought it probably would be a mistake. Dick Cheney thought it would be a mistake, originally, to topple Huseein, because chaos would ensue. And sure enough, chaos did ensue. Iran is more of a threat. I thought even at the time the war was a mistake."
Paul's declared rivals for the Republican nomination -- the ones that have spoken out -- have agreed with him. "At the time, the intelligence reports indicated that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that posed a significant national security threat to this country," said Texas Senator Ted Cruz in an interview with Julian Hattem. "That’s the reason there was such widespread bipartisan support for going into Iraq. We now know in hindsight, those intelligence reports were false. Without that predicate, it is difficult to imagine the decision would have been made to go into Iraq, and that predicate proved erroneous."
Today, after a much-touted foreign policy speech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said much the same. Had the shoddy intelligence been exposed, there would have been no war. "Not only would I have not been in favor of it," he said, "President Bush would not have been in favor of it."
The senators were not alone. Every politician who has been asked about the issue, everyone who did not have a legislative or familial tie to the Iraq War, has come out retroactively against it. "If the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no," Ohio Governor John Kasich told reporter Darrel Rowland. “I wouldn’t have seen it as vital to national interests.” He was in step with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who told CNN's Jake Tapper that no one could "honestly say that if we knew then that there was no WMD, that the country should have gone to war."
The search for a Republican hopeful who would actually defend the Iraq War seemed hopeless. Enter John Bolton. The former UN Ambassador, who will announce his 2016 plans tomorrow, told Bloomberg News that Bush had manhandled a question that was asked glibly in the first place.
"Absolutely we still should have overthrown Saddam," said Bolton. "The questions, the way they’re asked, the way some are answered, have the intellectual sharpness of a bowl of oatmeal. It's ridiculous: Crimean War, yes or no? War of the Spanish Succession, yes or no. I understand a lot of this is politics, but I don’t really care about that. The key is understanding what works and what doesn’t, and on radio or on TV it’s very hard to have that a conversation."
Bolton had a l'esprit de l'escalier sort of answer for Bush, or for anyone else stumbling over the question. It also happened to be the answer he would give. "The idea that the decision to intervene Saddam led to the current situation in Middle East is inherently flawed," he said. "American forces were in Iraq a little over nine years. The use of force to remove Saddam took less than three weeks. Now, after that, a lot of mistakes were made. Those mistakes did not follow naturally because of the initial decision to invade. A better question might be: Did you favor Obama backing Nouri al-Maliki over Ayad Allawi in 2010? Did you favor, as he favored, pulling all the troops out? There’s never been a period in anybody’s life where they make one decision and everything else for the decision can be blamed on that. One thing Jeb Bush should have said is that Obama can blame George W. Bush for a lot of things, but he can’t blame him for decisions made after January 20, 2009."