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Jeb Has Fallen Into the Trap. It's Not About What You Know Now, It's About Who You Are

05/21/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2016

Jeb Bush finally got his answer right. Bowing to the political correctness of the moment, the aspiring President Bush III fell into line and spoke the magic words. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have launched an invasion of Iraq.

It did not come easily. Bush readily admitted that he has a hard time disagreeing with his family and he was loath to say anything about the Iraq War that might cast his older brother in a bad light. Even as he said the magic words, he was walking it back:

"That's not to say that the world [isn't] safer because Saddam Hussein is gone. It is significantly safer. That's not to say that there [wasn't] a courageous effort to bring about a surge that created stability in Iraq. All of that is true. And that's not to say that the men and women who've served uniform and many others who went to Iraq to serve, they did so, certainly, honorably. But, we've answered the question now."

Bush's grudging response made it clear that candidates are being asked the wrong question. Across the board, from the dozen or so Republicans through Hillary Clinton, the candidates to succeed Barack Obama have embraced the "If I knew then what I know now" consensus, blaming the decision to invade Iraq, in Bush's words, on "mistakes as it related to faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the war."

But intelligence regarding WMD was not what led George W. Bush and his administration to take the country to war. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in his 2003 interview with Sam Tanenhaus in Vanity Fair just weeks after the U.S. invasion, succinctly set forth the administration's rationale for war against Saddam: "There have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there's a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two..." The subsequent 911 Commission Report documented the administration's extensive focus on Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 9/11 attack, including the determination to use the attack as a pretext to bring down the Iraqi dictator.

Immediately after the publication of the Wolfowitz interview, the Pentagon and Conservative commentators objected to emphasis in the Vanity Fair article that the administration had settled on WMD as the sole or primary rationale for the invasion. A Pentagon official asserted, correctly, that in the Vanity Fair interview Wolfowitz "made clear that there were multiple reasons for the use of military forces against Iraq." Writing a few weeks later, Bill Kristol, conservative doyen and editor of The Weekly Standard, disputed the notion that the war had been sold to the American public on false pretenses, explicitly focusing on the conflation of chemical and nuclear weapons under the single acronym WMD. "No one doubts that Saddam's regime had weapons of mass destruction, used weapons of mass destruction, and had an ongoing program to develop more such weapons." Kristol's first two assertions were unarguably true. We knew that Saddam had had chemical weapons--which he used against both Iran and his own people--because we sold them to him. And the Bush administration intelligence on that matter was flawless because Wolfowitz's boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had arranged the sale of those weapons to Saddam as the envoy of President Reagan 19 years earlier. Only the latter assertion about an ongoing program was in doubt.

The WMD intelligence-failure narrative gained favor, particularly among Democrats who had voted for the war but had come to regret their vote--and now has been embraced by nearly all of the presidential contenders--but it was not a deciding factor for President Bush or his team at the time. Their determination to bring down the Iraq regime rested on firmly held convictions about both Saddam Hussein in particular and their broader foreign policy theory of regime change as the preferred path to best effect change in the Middle East. WMD or no, Saddam was who they thought he was, and one only needs to look at the viciousness of his former generals who are now leading the ISIS campaign of terror if one doubts what Saddam's regime was capable of.

At the end of his 2003 article, Kristol raised the central issue: "People of good will are entitled to disagree, even in retrospect, about the wisdom and probable effects of Saddam's forcible removal." This week, Scott Walker commented that "Any president would have likely taken the same action [President George W.] Bush did with the information he had." But this is not true. Most likely not even George W.'s father. This was exactly the issue that James Baker and Brent Scowcroft raised in 1991 when they advised President Bush I not to send troops to Baghdad in the closing days of the first Gulf War and not to depose Saddam Hussein because of the chaos they believed would ensue. And it was exactly the issue raised again by Scowcroft in 2002 when he advised President Bush II through a Wall Street Journal op-ed Don't Attack Saddam, mirroring those same concerns--and widely interpreted at the time as reflective of the view of the President's father. And it is apparent from the 911 Report that just "any president" would likely not have even have considered invading Iraq--given the lack of evidence linking Saddam to 9/11--unless, like Bush II, that president's administration came into office looking for an opportunity to take Saddam out.

So far, of the candidates running for president, only Rand Paul has focused explicitly on the issue Kristol raised. Just a few days before the Jeb Bush story broke, Paul asserted that toppling Saddam Hussein--as well as our broader policy of regime change in the Middle East-- was a mistake: "Each time we topple a secular dictator, I think we wind up with chaos and radical Islam seems to rise." Paul was roundly dismissed as an isolationist, despite articulating views that mirrored the Republican Party mainstream prior to the ascendancy of the neoconservatives under the second Bush administration.

As documented in the 911 Commission Report, the determination to invade Iraq in 2003 was a decision in search of supporting intelligence, not the other way around. The lessons of the Iraq war are about the limitations of regime change and preventive war as foreign policy doctrines. Today, as we hear literally the same rationales for war coming from Iran hawks that Wolfowitz expressed to Sam Tanenhaus regarding Iraq over a decade ago, it is important to know what each candidate sees as the lessons of our recent history. The question for Jeb Bush is not about spurious faulty intelligence, but whether as President Bush III he would choose to walk the foreign policy path of his father or that of his brother, or whether his loyalty to his family would render him incapable of choosing between the two.