Jeb Bush on Thursday tried, finally, to exorcise the ghost of the Iraq war that has haunted him politically for most of the week. Speaking at a small brewery in Arizona, Bush said, “Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged, I would not have gone into Iraq.”
He made the declaration without any prompting — a sign that Bush knew he had to clean up the muddled responses that began in a Fox News interview taped Saturday. His shakiness was the first significant misstep in his early campaign, and it gave an opening to his likely 2016 Republican presidential rivals to pounce, with one after the other clearly stating they would not have authorized the invasion.
Bush’s trouble began when anchor Megyn Kelly asked him the most obvious of questions about his brother’s scarred Iraq legacy: “Knowing what we know, would you have authorized the invasion?”
“I would have,” Bush said, “and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
Kelly pressed Bush on whether the war was a mistake, and he conceded the intelligence was “faulty.” She later opined he had misheard her question. But the damage had been done by the time her interview aired Monday.
“If we knew then what we know now, and I were the President of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Bush rival, told CNN on Tuesday.
Bush said on the radio that afternoon that he had, in fact, misunderstood Kelly. But when host Sean Hannity asked it again, Bush said, “I don’t know.” He called the query a “hypothetical.” That only further emboldened his critics, who pointed out that most of a presidential campaign (or soon-to-be campaign, in Bush’s case) involves discussing hypotheticals.
By the time Bush arrived in Nevada on Wednesday, he was repeatedly getting asked about Iraq. “I respect the question, but it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot,” Bush said in Reno.
By Thursday, he had had enough. He took Kelly’s original question head on.
This time, on his fourth try, Bush didn’t hesitate.
“If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions, ‘knowing what we know now what would you have done,’ I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq,” Bush said at the Four Peaks Brewery in Tempe, Arizona.
“That’s not to say that the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is gone — it is significantly safer. That’s not to say courageous effort to bring about a surge that created stability in Iraq — all of that is true. And that’s not to say that men and women that have served in uniform and many others that went to Iraq to serve, they did so certainly honorably. But we’ve answered the question now.”
Bush didn’t say why it had taken him this long to explain himself. As a member of a famously loyal family, it seemed Bush was uncomfortable criticizing his older brother — even though former President George W. Bush has acknowledged his mistakes in Iraq.
“While the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam [Hussein] gone, the reality was that I sent American troops into combat based on intelligence that proved false,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir Decision Points. “That was a massive blow to our credibility — my credibility — that would shake the confidence of the American people.”
Conservative columnist Byron York of the Washington Examiner, who had excoriated Bush over his original response, called it good enough on Thursday and moved on to attack Clinton over her 2003 war support.
But Democrats piled on, tying Jeb Bush to his brother and his brother’s advisors, many of whom also have the ear of the former Florida governor. “It’s like pitching a sequel to a terrible movie, only worse,” said Alexis Tameron, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party, in a call with reporters.
It’s early enough in the race — so early that Jeb Bush isn’t formally a candidate — that he has a chance to refine his positions. Bush, who gives media interviews often, decried “scripted” campaigns on Thursday.
But the son and brother of two presidents has struggled with how to separate himself from his brother, despite declaring he would be his “own man.” To be sure, Bush will face many more questions about his brother’s tenure.
Iraq is not as crucial a campaign issue as it was in 2008, when Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination over Clinton, in large part, because of his opposition to the war. By 2012, Republican presidential candidates had acknowledged — though less readily than today — that they wouldn’t have gone into Iraq knowing it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.
The war remains unpopular, particularly among general-election voters. Were Bush to get that far, he could be helped by Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, who voted to authorize the war while she was in the Senate.
She has since said supporting the invasion was “wrong.”
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report, as did McClatchy White House Correspondent Lesley Clark from Washington.