Says who?

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What Candidates Should Be Asked About Iraq

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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I agree with Greg Sargent and Josh Marshall that the “if you knew then what you know now” line of questioning about Iraq has real problems. But its worthwhile to find out what presidential candidates learned from the Iraq episode -- especially the lessons that apply to the job they want to win. 

I’m under no illusions that asking tough questions can make candidates reveal anything. A competent politician can avoid any subject he or she doesn’t want to discuss. So the  questions that follow should be viewed as tools for evaluating candidates. The goal would be to tease out whether these politicians appear to have an understanding of the traps that swallowed the Bush presidency and would be able to avoid making similar errors. Or just think of them as useful questions to keep in mind while examining the candidates' careers: Do they seem to have demonstrated the skills to avoid these mistakes?

One interpretation of the origins of the Iraq war is that George W. Bush was misled by his administration (including his vice-president). As president, what would you do to ensure that advisers with an agenda don't steer you into a foolish policy? 

Another interpretation – which Republicans were embracing last week -- is that Bush and others reacted appropriately to the faulty intelligence they were given. I agree with Sargent and Marshall that this is a stretch, but it does lead to a good question: How would you guard against basing decisions on faulty intelligence?

Yet another interpretation is that the administration was plagued by “groupthink” -- the pressure to go along with the consensus, leading skeptics to suppress good advice. What would you do as president to prevent groupthink?

Can you give an example of how you were able to avoid each of those pitfalls -- manipulative advisers, bad information, groupthink -- during your political career?

Whatever the differences of opinion about the original decision to invade Iraq, there’s general agreement the occupation was inept. We know some of the specific policy mistakes (such as disbanding the Iraqi army) that contributed to the fiasco. What should the president have done differently to achieve better results? 

The thinking behind these questions? Both liberal and conservative presidents, with very different policy agendas, can be good at presidenting and achieve good results -- or be terrible and have failed presidencies. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net