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Candidates should face Iraq, Libya litmus tests

Every presidential candidate should face pressure to answer, explicitly, these two questions: Given what we now know, was it right or wrong to invade Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein and, eight years later, to help topple the regime of Moamar Gadhafi in Libya?

Force the contenders to skip the partisan talking points and make them provide an inkling of a would-be president’s instincts about military interventions. The Iraq invasion was undertaken by the brother of the leading 2016 Republican candidate. The Libya operations were advanced by the Democratic front-runner.

Today, both Iraq and Libya are dangerously dysfunctional countries where terrorism is pervasive. At the same time, the threat of the Islamic State has made war-weary Americans, at least temporarily, more receptive to U.S. involvement.

Some prospective candidates have no trouble with these questions.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a hard-liner on national security, says the world is “better off” without Hussein and Gadhafi. Jim Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia, decorated war hero and perspective challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, says both interventions were a mistake, positions he has held from the start.

For a number of other politicians, non-candidates and candidates alike, it’s a more difficult call. At a recent Washington breakfast, Sen. Ron Johnson, a conservative Republican from Wisconsin, initially waffled and then acknowledged that “in hindsight — again, Monday morning quarterbacking — while Iraq under Saddam Hussein was evil as a regime, there was stability.”

At another breakfast, the usually self-confident Tom Cotton, a freshman Republican senator from Arkansas, tried to duck, insisting “you don’t get to go back and replay those decisions.” When it was pointed out that history does just that, he ultimately declared: “President Bush made the right decision when Saddam Hussein refused to come clean and disarm his weapons of mass destruction programs.” (The Iraqi dictator didn’t “come clean,” neither did he have such weapons.)

The questions are pertinent for the front-runners. Jeb Bush, the ex-Florida governor and brother of former President George W. Bush, brought up Iraq in politically charged terms in a speech in Chicago last month. He admitted that the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, the rationale for the invasion, was flawed and that the occupation was poorly run. His brother, and most everyone else, acknowledged that long ago.

Playing the Republican card, he said the 2007 troop surge in Iraq initiated by his brother was “heroic” and the problems today can be traced to Present Barack Obama’s failure to leave sufficient U.S. forces. We still don’t know if he thinks the original decision was a good one that he could replicate some day.

Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion when she was a senator, and defended that vote during her 2008 presidential campaign, has since said she made a mistake. She was, however, the Obama administration’s leading advocate for toppling Gadhafi in 2011; it was to be her signature achievement.

She has never been grilled on whether that was a mistake, too. Ironically, Republicans may spare her that question, as they focus instead on a subsequent event: lax security at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed. (In 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, a bomb killed 241 Marines in their barracks in Beirut, a far greater security lapse.)

To be sure, a candidate’s rhetoric, especially on national security, isn’t always a good guide to presidential actions. In 1964, Lyndon B Johnson vowed he wouldn’t send “American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

A year later there were 184,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. In 2000, George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy; after Sept. 11, it was more hubris than humility.

Still, presidential candidates should be pressed; Iraq and Libya are good starting points.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.

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