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Revisionist history: Jeb Bush on ‘mistakes’ in Iraq

Bush wants to explain away the cause of the war by blaming bad U.S. intelligence, but he has more explaining to do.

Jeb Bush: "I'm my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences."
REUTERS/Jim Young

Returning to Jeb Bush’s coming out party on foreign policy, one of the big media memes heading into the event was how he would deal with the family legacy. Arguably, his older brother’s decision to bomb, invade, occupy and then “democratize” Iraq in 2003 was the key event that triggered the destabilization of the region, with (mostly unpleasant) consequences leading up to the present moment.

This might be all the more tragic since the Iraq War was sold to the public on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein was hiding or developing chemical, biological and nuclear “weapons of mass destruction,” which turned out to be false.

Jeb Bush had his sound bite ready and he delivered it likably, thus:  

“As you might know, I’ve also been fortunate to have a father and a brother who helped shape America’s foreign-policy from the Oval Office. I recognize that as a result my views will often be held up in comparison to theirs. In fact, this is a great, fascinating thing in the political world for some reason. Sometimes in contrast to their views. Look, just for the record, one more time, I love my brother, I love my dad, I actually love my mother as well, hope that’s OK. And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make, but I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”

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It worked. The aside about loving his mother got a laugh. He got the headline he wanted from at least USA Today (“Jeb Bush vows to be ‘my own man’ on foreign affairs”), and having said absolutely nothing about how he agreed with or differed from his Bushian predecessors, he moved on.

Later, during the question and answer period, he returned to the Iraq question and acknowledged that “mistakes were made in Iraq,” although it turned out that his brother’s only mistake was listening to the CIA in 2002-03, whereas the more serious mistake was made by President Obama’s with his decision to remove the U.S. troops in 2011. Here’s what Jeb Bush said:

“Well, let’s — let’s go to Iraq. There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure.

“Using the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction was not — turns out not to be accurate. Not creating an environment of security after the successful taking out of [Saddam] Hussein was a mistake, because Iraqis wanted security most — you know, more than anything else.

“But my brother’s administration, through the surge, which was one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that — that any president’s done, because there was no support for this. And it was hugely successful. And it created the stability that when the new president came in, he could’ve built on to create a fragile but more stable situation that would’ve not allowed for the void to be filled. The void has been filled, because we created the void.

“And so the lesson, I think, is engagement. Whether it’s always the United States, that’s another subject. I don’t think it has to be. But when you — when you have a failed state or a weak state and you leave, the first thing that — that happened was Maliki turned to — because it was — it was fragile — who did he turn to? He turned to Iran. And Iran’s influence now has replaced the United States in a significant way.”

This is the current received neoconservative version. The “surge” worked and everything would’ve been fine if Obama hadn’t withdrawn U.S. troops a mere eight years after they got there.

Disastrous choice of Maliki

This version under-emphasizes a few things. The rise of the Islamic State and especially its breathtakingly easy conquest of a big chunk of Iraq owes much to alienation of Iraq’s Sunni minority from post-Saddam Iraq, which owes much to the disastrous choice, by the George W. Bush administration, of the thug Nouri al-Maliki to run the country in 2006. That’s the Iraqi partner Obama inherited from W.

Jeb Bush blames Obama for allowing Maliki to “turn to Iran” but doesn’t mention that Maliki, the man his brother put in charge of Iraq, had recently lived in Iran for seven years.

But before there was Maliki or Obama, there was the fateful 2002-2003 decision of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to start this war of choice. It was justified on the argument (among others) that it would lead to a flowering of democracy in the Mideast, but even moreso on the argument that Saddam Hussein was hiding chemical and biological weapons and building a nuclear bomb.

And, Jeb Bush says, his brother’s mistake was relying on “the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction” that “turned out not to be accurate.” I don’t know what country Jeb Bush was in during the run-up to the Iraq war, but in the United States, the CIA evidence that Saddam was hiding WMD and making nukes was hardly “embraced” by “everybody.”

There is a strong case to be made, and it was made at the time, that the intelligence community cooked up exactly the “evidence” that Bush and Cheney wanted to justify the invasion. But that’s not my hang-up nor my reason for this post.

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To me, the best evidence that Saddam Hussein was hiding something was the fact that he wouldn’t allow U.N. weapons inspectors the kind of unfettered access they needed to certify that he wasn’t hiding anything. Saddam claimed to be in compliance with the U.N. resolutions that required him to destroy his chemical and biological weapons. (In fact, it turns out, he was in compliance.) But as long as he refused to allow inspectors in to confirm that fact, it seemed reasonable to be skeptical.

Which brings us to the biggest problem with Jeb’s statement about the intelligence that merely “turn[ed] out not to be accurate.”

Saddam had relented

Before the days of “shock and awe” that began the war, Saddam finally relented and allowed the U.N. inspectors to come back into Iraq, to look wherever they wanted with no advance notice. The United States had been saying (as in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous U.N. speech) that America knew what illegal weapons Saddam possessed and where they were hidden. Shortly before George W. Bush started the war, the U.N. inspectors had prompt access to all those sites. They found no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

The head of the U.N. inspections team, Hans Blix of Sweden, told the United States and the United Nations that he was getting excellent cooperation from the Iraqis at that point. His only complaint was that the Iraqis couldn’t produce documentation that they had destroyed all the weapons they had previously been known to possess. He asked for a little while longer to finish their work.

But at that point, the American side had lost interest in whether or not there were WMD hidden in Iraq. Blix and his inspectors had to be evacuated so they would not be killed by U.S. bombs.

If Jeb Bush wants to say that one of the key “mistakes” that led to the Iraq war was that “the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction was not — turns out not to be accurate” he should explain why the war started even though the intelligence had just been shown to be inaccurate.