This week, the transfixing event for the world of people who cover the 2016 presidential election came courtesy of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who turned an easy question from Fox News' Megyn Kelly -- "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion [of Iraq]?" -- into a weeklong wacky adventure of periphrasis. At first, Bush's answer was yes, then the answer was that he had misheard the question, and then the answer was that the question itself was a "hypothetical" that could only be answered in a way that dishonored the troops.
At the same time, Bush's rivals for the GOP nomination were gleefully fielding the same inquiries, recognizing an unexpected boon that would allow them to draw a stark contrast between themselves and their well-funded opponent. To a man, they all proclaimed that they would not have authorized the invasion of Iraq if they'd known then what they know now. Then, finally, suddenly, Bush's answer was no, as well. And ... exhale. At the end of the week, everyone's given an answer to Kelly's original "gimme" question.
And when I call it a "gimme" question, let's note that the question's intrinsic "gimme-ness" cuts both ways. There is no member of the media who sincerely wants to know if a presidential candidate would restage the Iraq War knowing what is now known. No reporter is literally walking around wondering what the answer to that question is. If we're being honest, the reason Kelly asked that question in the first place was to prick at Jeb Bush's familial tensions -- to get him in front of an oncoming metaphorical bus with Brother George and tempt him to give Dubya a little shove. Jeb's problem was that he didn't recognize the gotcha game Kelly was really playing, wandered off the rails on his lonesome, and allowed his opponents to rack up political points against him on the cheap.
But what have we learned from this misfortune? Well, one thing that's now clear is that we know which candidates are capable of giving the answer that, had it been offered at the outset, would have prevented this five-day gaffe-cycle news story. That's great, I guess! What we've not learned, however, is which candidates are capable of giving the answer that, had it been provided at the outset, would have prevented the invasion of Iraq.
To answer that, one can't ask, "If you'd known then what you now know, would you have invaded Iraq?" The proper question is, "Where did you stand on the invasion of Iraq at the time of the original argument?" I know this is probably shocking to many people who cover politics, but there were people back then who possessed the foresight to know that the Iraq War was a certain botch. To our great misfortune, that cohort has produced very few presidential candidates.
I can understand the temptation to perceive this moment as one in which the 2016 election, quite by happenstance, delivers a final, debate-ending verdict on the Iraq War. After all, one thing that's been crystallized is how no one outside of the cult of True Iraq War Believers wants to stick up for the invasion. Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall notes the occasion thusly: "Improbably, Jeb Bush's run for president and painful bumbling have triggered, though by no means caused, a watershed moment in the country's reckoning with the strategic blunder -- and let's just say it -- self-inflicted catastrophe of the Iraq War."
It was one thing when John Kasich and Chris Christie said they would not have invaded Iraq -- guys who would run as relative moderates and either aren't running or don't realize they're not running for president. (Rand Paul said the same but that's no surprise.) But now we have Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz saying they would not have either. Rubio is the big tell here since he among all the 2016 contenders is angling for the support of the neoconservative foreign policy intelligentsia. If he can say categorically that it was a mistake, the debate is probably really finally over.
I guess this is all well and good? A bunch of people who -- because of the unbroken strictures of temporality -- can't restage the Iraq War, wouldn't restage the Iraq War. This seems like a low bar to clear -- and a bar that was lowered, it's worth mentioning, by Bush's brother himself. The bar represents the wildly incompetent execution of what was from the start a very bad idea, leading to a situation in Iraq that's failed to improve during the subsequent administration, and is now so objectively hellish that the badness of the original idea is inescapable.
The more pressing question about Iraq, in fact, isn't "If you'd known then what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq?" Rather, they are "What have you learned from this colossal cock-up?" and "How are you going to not make this even worse?" Those questions have yet to pass the lips of 2016's ersatz inquisitors. And so this whole ordeal with Jeb Bush has merely been an exercise in low-bar clearance, one that allows everyone mentioned in the conversation above to treat this issue as if it were -- as Bush suggested -- a "hypothetical."
But sorry, no. There is no hypothetical here. The Iraq War happened. This is a judgment that the defendants lost a long time ago. And all of these Johnny-come-lately 2016ers tripping over themselves as they sprint to spit cheaply won wisdom from behind the plaintiff's table are obscuring the people who deserve the most praise and celebration -- those who had the good sense to oppose the Iraq invasion from the outset.
As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent points out, the mere question that was put to Jeb Bush erases anyone who opposed the war in Iraq in advance:
In this framing, the question becomes: Will you admit that you were misled into supporting a war that everyone now agrees in hindsight was an unnecessary and tragic mistake?
But this leaves out a big part of the story of the run-up to the war, which is that some people were arguing at the time against invading Iraq, on the grounds that the evidence was all right there in plain sight that Iraq did not pose a threat imminent enough to justify an invasion. Some people (I’m not claiming to be among them) were publicly shouting themselves hoarse, pointing out at the time that, at the very least, there were serious questions about whether Iraq really posed the threat the Bush administration claimed it did.
Let us at long last make it clear and proclaim it ever thus! These are history's victors: the ones you don't need to ask if they would have invaded Iraq if they knew what they know now. They knew it then. More importantly, those who opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning took no end of abuse for taking that position. They were called unserious, they were compared to Neville Chamberlain, they were told that they hadn't learned the "lesson of September 11th," and they took that beating from the Iraq War's engineers and its cheerleaders, who've suffered very little consequence for their tragic lapse in judgment.
Somewhere during his weeklong perambulations, Jeb Bush offered that "the focus" needed to be "on the future." Fair enough. But let's not let the present moment pass without acknowledging that those who were most focused on the future during the run-up to the war in Iraq were the ones working to stop it from happening. Don't confuse those people with all of today's 2016 candidates, burnishing their merit badges for hindsight with billionaires' boodle.
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