If there was one question Jeb Bush should have prepared for — should have had down cold — it was the one he blew in an interview with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly last Monday.
He blew it again on Tuesday and, amazingly, yet again on Wednesday.
It wasn’t a trick question. It wasn’t a gotcha question. It was a softball: Would you, knowing what we know now, have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq?
Bush should have belted it out of the park. It was a chance to distinguish himself from his brother’s failed presidency — to reassure the voting public that even Republicans have learned from this disastrous war. Certainly, he could have qualified his answer to be charitable toward his brother, but there is no question that he needed to repudiate the decision to invade.
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The first time he was asked, by Kelly, he gave the wrong answer. Yes, he would have invaded. “And so would’ve Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” he added.
Tuesday, in damage-control mode, he reached out to Sean Hannity to claim that he didn’t understand the question. His next tack, on Wednesday, was to complain about hypothetical questions. “I respect the question, but it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot,” Bush said during a town hall in Reno, Nev.
Nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers didn’t hypothetically lose their lives in Iraq. We didn’t spend nearly 2 trillion hypothetical dollars on the war there. And an unknown number, but estimated to be as high as 150,000, of Iraqi civilians didn’t hypothetically die there.
Thursday, Bush finally and unequivocally answered. “I would not have engaged, I would not have gone into Iraq,” he said in Tempe, Ariz.
This is so dismaying.
The narrative that the GOP candidates are running on is one of world disorder, supposedly cultivated by the current administration. A favorite line is that our enemies don’t fear us enough and our friends don’t trust us. And it’s all President Obama’s fault.
An alternative explanation is that by destroying the Iraqi state — dissolving its government, disbanding its army — and failing to create a unifying successor state, the Bush administration destroyed the balance of power in the Middle East. Many years will pass and much more blood will be spilled before equilibrium is regained, and what that will look like is anybody’s guess.
Nobody expects Jeb Bush to admit that his brother committed the most calamitous own-goal in the history of American foreign policy. We do expect him to have reflected on it and to have grasped its lessons. His answers last week indicate that he has not bothered. And that raises very serious doubts about his fitness to be commander-in-chief.
That’s a shame, because the rest of the GOP field ranges in quality from green to daffy. Bush was supposed to be the adult in the room.
Even Sen. Ted Cruz, an unashamed panderer to the most conspiratorial right-wing elements in the Republican base, has been canny enough to write off the invasion of Iraq as an error. He knows a losing proposition when he sees one. And the same can be said of several other Republican candidates, who have safely if not very vocally disowned the Iraq War.
With their sniping at Obama — and at Hillary Clinton, their likely opponent in the general election — Republicans are trying to repay the Democrats for their withering and effective criticism of George W. Bush’s foreign-policy failures. But the fact is the United States now is reaping the whirlwind created by advocates of vigorous U.S. intervention abroad, who have held sway in government for decades. The neoconservatives are the best known of these and certainly bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the morass in the Middle East, but certain Democrats are not without blame.
Hillary Clinton, for one, voted to authorize use of force in Iraq. She, too, deserves close questioning as to why she did so and what she would do as president to redirect U.S. policy away from fruitless and expensive entanglements abroad.
No candidate of either party deserves to stroll right into the highest office in the nation without showing genuine leadership. That includes the judgment and courage to refuse foreign entanglements that put our nation at risk while not serving vital national interests.
Deep introspection into our recent military engagements, not a mere Cliffs Notes rendition of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is a fitting litmus test.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.
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