If all goes well, in the 2016 campaign we'll be rehashing the arguments we had about the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003. You may be thinking, "Jeez, do we really have to go through that again?" But we do—in fact, we must. If we're going to make sense of where the next president is going to take the United States on foreign policy, there are few more important discussions to have.
On Sunday, Fox News posted an excerpt of an interview Megyn Kelly did with Jeb Bush in which she asked him whether he too would have invaded Iraq, and here's how that went:
Kelly: Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?
Bush: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.
Kelly: You don't think it was a mistake?
Bush: In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn't focus on security first, and the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families. By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place, as well? George W. Bush. So, news flash to the world, if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.
While the full interview airs tonight so we don't yet know whether Kelly followed up to clarify, in this excerpt Jeb Bush deftly answers not the question Kelly asked him but a slightly different question, one that lets him rope in Hillary Clinton and get himself off the hook. While she asked him whether he would have authorized the invasion knowing what we know now, he answered as if she had asked whether he would have authorized the invasion believing what many believed then. For the record, there were plenty of people at the time who objected to the invasion, so it's utterly false to say "almost everybody" supported it, and while Hillary Clinton did indeed vote for the war, she wouldn't say she would have invaded knowing what we know now.
Bush's answer may be evasive, but it's understandable—after all, it's not like he's going to say, "Yes, the whole thing was a catastrophe and we never should have done it." As of now, Rand Paul is the only Republican presidential candidate who has said that the war was a mistake.
But the question isn't so much whether a candidate will admit what a disaster Iraq was, but what they've learned from the experience. How do they view the extraordinary propaganda campaign the Bush administration launched to convince Americans to get behind the war? Does that make them want to be careful about how they argue for their policy choices? Did Iraq change their perspective on American military action, particularly in the Middle East? What light does it shed on the reception the American military is likely to get the next time we invade someplace? What does it teach us about power vacuums and the challenges of nation-building? How does it inform the candidate's thinking on the prospect of military action in Syria and Iran specifically? Given the boatload of unintended consequences Iraq unleashed, how would he or she, as president, go about making decisions on complex issues that are freighted with uncertainty?
I would love to know how Jeb Bush would answer those questions, whether he'll say that the invasion was a mistake or not. The same goes for his primary opponents. But if what we've seen so far is any indication, we aren't likely to get a whole lot of thoughtful foreign policy discussion from them. This weekend the non-Bush candidates were in Greenville for the South Carolina Freedom Summit, where they walked on stage and beat their chests while advocating for a foreign policy inevitably described by the press as "muscular." Scott Walker apparently thrilled the crowd by telling them that terrorists are coming to America, and "I want a leader who is willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us." But the real good stuff came from Marco Rubio:
"On our strategy on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie Taken. Have you seen the movie Taken? Liam Neeson. He had a line, and this is what our strategy should be: 'We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.'"
Ah, the inspiringly sophisticated foreign policy thinking of the GOP candidate. I'm old enough to remember when we had another president who liked to sound like a movie-star tough guy. "There's an old poster out West, as I recall," he said when asked about Osama bin Laden, "that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'" You'll recall that it was a different president who was in charge when bin Laden was found. "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there," he said about Iraqi insurgents early on in the war. "My answer is, bring 'em on." They came, and thousands of American servicemembers were killed in the ensuing fighting. But George W. Bush was praised at the time for his "moral clarity."
We shouldn't forget Hillary Clinton—I doubt she wants to talk much about Iraq, since she supported the war at the time (which was one of the biggest reasons she lost to Barack Obama in 2008). She should explain how the the Iraq War will inform her thinking about the foreign policy challenges the next president is likely to face. But twelve years after the war started, we're back in Iraq (albeit with boots hovering in midair). Large swaths of the country have been taken over by a terrorist group that emerged out of the war's chaos. And the glorious flowering of freedom and democracy across the region that George W. Bush promised hasn't come to pass.
So there's a basic question the Republican candidates should answer: Is there anything they learned from the Iraq War? Anything at all?