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Jeb Bush, the GOP and the Iraq War: 'Knowing What We Know Now'

05/19/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Supporters of presumptive Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush admit that he "stumbled" over questions about the Iraq War.

When asked if "knowing what we know now" -- that U.S. intelligence was faulty and Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) -- he would have invaded Iran, the former Florida Governor responded in the affirmative.

But then in the days following the interview, Bush insisted that he "misinterpreted" the question and corrected himself. "Knowing what we know now," he would not have invaded Iraq.

Bush's faltering performance, which many saw as a reflection of his reluctance to criticize his brother who made the decision to go to war in Iraq, provided an opening for the declared and undeclared GOP presidential candidates, including those who had actually backed the invasion of Iraq, to attack Bush and then to reiterate what has become the Republican mantra. "Knowing what we know now," they all believe that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake.

This evolving "debate" over the Iraq War seemed to be integrated into a historical narrative in which the U.S. intelligence agencies are being depicted as the villain in the story. After all, they provided the intelligence on the non-existent WMD in Iraq that left Bush and Cheney no other choice but to go to war in Iraq.

The underlying assumption of this narrative is that if Saddam Hussein had possessed WMD, Bush would have been justified in declaring war on Iraq, and in ousting Saddam Hussein and invading the country.

Noting that that leading Democrats, including then Senator Hillary Clinton, as well as large segments of the media and public opinion had supported the Iraq before they were against it ("knowing what they know now") tends to bolster the argument that "almost everyone" believed that Saddam had WMD, and concluded that Saddam had to go.

But this popular narrative disregards one important point. The question should be not whether U.S. intelligence had faulty intelligence, but whether the existence of WMD in Iraq by itself should have been regarded as a casus belli -- as a justification for going to war against, and invading, a foreign country.

The United States, it should be recalled, didn't declare war against its Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union and China when they went on to develop atomic weapons. It may have been ready to go to war against the Soviet Union over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, but that move that was seen by most Americans as a clear and present danger to U.S. national security.

In a way, the source for the strategic rationale for going to war against Iraq was the so-called Bush Doctrine that assumed that the United States had the right and the obligation to launch "preemptive strikes" as a defense against a perceived threat to its security posed by anti-American states and groups.

Note that there was never was a serious debate in Congress or in the media over this central part of the Bush Doctrine. In fact, the main reason that the Bush Administration succeeded in mobilizing congressional and public support for attacking Iraq was the sense of fear that engulfed the American people in the aftermath of 9/11, and led many of them to believe that Saddam had something to do with those terrorist attacks.

Even if the intelligence community was right, and Iraq did possess WMDs in 2003, the correct response based on traditional U.S. concepts of national security would have been to draw a strategy based on the use of diplomatic means -- including the threat of military power -- to force Iraq to give up its WMD, and if that failed, to embrace of policy of containment, and work together with regional and global powers, to deal with the Iraqi threat.

In fact, these are exactly the policies that Washington has been pursuing in response to the threat that North Korea and Iran could become nuclear powers. Which brings us back to the 2016 presidential race and the phony debate over the Iraq War between the Republican presidential candidates.

Since "we know now" that North Korea has acquired nuclear military technology and that Iran could do that in the future, would Jeb Bush and the his Republican rivals be ready to follow at the footsteps of President George W. Bush and use U.S. military force to reverse these developments? Replace the regimes in North Korea and Iran? Invade these countries?

It's doubtful that any of the Republican presidential candidates would advocate doing a rerun of the Iraq War in North Korea, and it would be interesting to find out why they would reject such an option with all that "we know now" based on the (apparently) correct intelligence at our disposal.

More intriguing would be to ask Bush the Third and other Republicans what exactly they think we should do in light of what "we know now" about the Iran nuclear program. If they oppose the current deal with Iran being negotiated by the Obama Administration, would they be ready to go to war against Iran if it took steps to develop nuclear military technology? Will they support a "preemptive strike" against Iran in case U.S. intelligence provides them with evidence that Iran was about to go nuclear?

You don't have to be political expert to predict that the Republican candidates, fully aware that a majority of Americans oppose a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, would equivocate on the issue and suggest that a more muscular American posture would supposedly force Iran to accept a "better deal."

But if their entire case against Iraq War boils down to faulty intelligence, why not launch a preemptive military strike against Iran, when we supposedly do have all intelligence we need about Iran's nuclear military program. Or perhaps we don't have all the intelligence we need (we never do) or we are not sure about what we have.

Which raises the following question: Shouldn't American presidents only go to war, as a last resort after the threat to U.S. security is seen by most Americans as immediate, clear and undeniable?

That is the question -- which is the real question about the Iraq War -- that should be posed to Bush and the other presidential candidates. One of them may have to decide on whether to go to war, and they shouldn't be allowed to shift the responsibility for the choices they make to the imperfect intelligence agencies that advise them.

Moreover, "knowing what we know now," we also have to conclude that President Bush was responsible for one of the worst strategic decisions in American history that, among other things, led to the disintegration of Iraq, ignited a war between Shiites and Sunnis that has spread into Syria and the rest of the Middle East, and has helped strengthen the power of Iran and its regional proxies while creating the conditions for the rise of ISIS.

But don't expect presidential candidate Bush and the other Republican presidential contenders to admit that President Bush II was responsible for the much of the current chaos in the Middle East. "Faulty intelligence" led to the Iraq War and then Barack Obama was elected as president and messed up Iraq and the Middle East. Let's not mention what happened in between.