Marco Rubio Finds A Way Out Of Sticky Iraq Trap

05/13/2015 05:32 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015

WASHINGTON -- With the dexterity of an acrobat, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) found a way to do what his mentor and likely rival for the White House, Jeb Bush, did not: reconcile his support for the Iraq invasion with the political inconvenience of appearing to support an unpopular war.

Rubio, asked Wednesday whether, knowing what is known now about Iraq, he would have still authorized a war, said absolutely not.

“Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President [George W.] Bush would not have been in favor of it," Rubio said following a major foreign policy speech at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

But Rubio gave a markedly different answer on the question of Iraq in March. Asked on the Fox News show "The Five" if it was a "mistake to go to war to Iraq," Rubio said:

No, I don't believe. ... The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein is not in Iraq. Here's what I think might have happened, had we not gone. You might have had an arms race to put Iraq in Iran -- they both would pursue the weapons. I will be dealing with two problems, not just one. We forget that Iraq, at the time of the invasion, was in open defiance of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, that the United Nations refused to enforce. They refused to comply with allowing inspectors in. Repeatedly, this was a country whose leader had gassed his own people on numerous occasions. So I think, hindsight is always 20/20, but we don't know what the world would look like if Saddam Hussein was still there. But I doubt it would look better in terms of -- it will be worse -- or just as bad for different reasons. I think it's very difficult to predict, I think. A better notion is, at the end of the Iraq war, Iraq had an opportunity to have a stable, peaceful future.

During his run for Senate in 2010, Rubio similarly argued "that the world is a better and safer place because Saddam Hussein no longer is in charge of that country."

The phrasing of questions posed to Rubio is key. On Wednesday, he was asked the same question that tripped up Jeb Bush -- whether he would have given the order to invade, even if he knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. But in March, he was asked whether he believed the war was a mistake, full stop. That gave him some room to essentially say that, while he wouldn’t have gone to war under similar circumstances, he’s ultimately glad we did.

That gives him a leg up -- if just barely -- on Bush, who is still dodging questions about his murky position on Iraq.

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