Should the U.S. have invaded Iraq in 2003? It’s a natural question for Jeb Bush, whose brother launched the unpopular war and who is now considering running for president while consulting with many of the same advisers. But after 24 hours, two interviews, and one misheard question, Bush’s answer is still unclear.
The story began on Monday, when Fox News aired an interview between Bush and host Megyn Kelly, in which she asked him whether “knowing what we know now,” the former Florida governor would have authorized the invasion of Iraq.
“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got,” Bush said.
Asked again whether the war was a “mistake,” Bush noted “in retrospect” that intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was faulty and that the American-led coalition failed to secure the country quickly to prevent what became a deadly insurgency. He noted that his brother had offered up similar criticisms.The next day, however, Republican strategist and longtime Bush friend Ana Navarro told CNN that Bush indicated to her that he misunderstood that Kelly had asked whether the war was the right call even with 20/20 hindsight.
“I emailed him this morning and I said to him, ‘Hey, I’m a little confused by this answer so I’m genuinely wondering did you mishear the question?’” Navarro said on air. “And he said, ‘Yes, I misheard the question.’”
Bush’s fellow Republican presidential hopefuls distanced themselves from his initial answer Tuesday, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie telling CNN’s Jake Tapper “I wouldn’t have gone to war,” and Texas. Sen Ted Cruz telling The Hill “of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq.”
At issue is a subtle, but crucial, distinction between whether Bush believes his brother, former President George W. Bush, was justified in invading Iraq at the time and whether he believes the invasion was worthwhile. It’s one thing to point out that there was a solid bipartisan consensus behind the war in 2003 and that many people outside the administration were concerned about Hussein. It’s another to indicate the war was the right call even with the knowledge that Hussein’s weapons programs no longer posed a threat, that the war would cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars over eight years, that ethnic tensions would tear the country apart, that Iran would expand its influence in the region, and that the radical Islamic State would emerge to take over large swaths of the country.
Related: Is Jeb Bush trapped on Iraq?
Facing criticism over his answer, including from prominent conservative commentators and fellow presidential hopefuls, Bush responded to the mounting controversy in a radio interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity Tuesday afternoon. In it, he confirmed that he did not hear Kelly’s question.
“I interpreted the question wrong, I guess. I was talking about given what people knew then, would you have done it, rather than knowing what we know now,” Bush said when asked to clarify his remarks. “And knowing what we know now, you know, clearly there were mistakes,” he continued, once again pointing to faulty intelligence and the decision to wind down the 2007 troop surge.
But when it came to finally answering the question of whether he would redo the Iraq War with the full knowledge of all that came next, Bush chose to punt.
“I don’t know what that decision would have been, that’s a hypothetical,” Bush told Hannity when pressed to say what he would have done with a time traveler’s hindsight. “The simple fact is mistakes were made … And so we need to learn from the past to make sure we’re strong and secure going forward.”
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said in a statement that Bush’s response showed he wasn’t “ready for primetime.”
“To the rest of us, this isn’t a hypothetical,” Elleithee said. “It’s clear, and in this one case, we’d like you to be more like your brother – be a decider.”
The most recent public opinion surveys on the issue are unambiguously sour on the Iraq War’s legacy. An NBC News/WSJ/Annenberg poll conducted in June 2014 found a staggering 71% of Americans believed the invasion and occupation was “not worth it” based on the results. Those results are almost a mirror image of the 65% of respondents who told NBC News they supported military action to remove Hussein in a poll in a March 2003 poll days before the invasion began.
However Bush ends up on the question, his answer will be a defining moment in his candidacy, which has been haunted from the start by the ghosts of his brother’s unpopular administration. Bush has long known – and has said as much – that his family’s presidential history would be as much a burden as a blessing in a 2016 campaign and he seems to bristle as much at the idea of separating himself from the two Bush presidencies as he does at the idea he might be judged by their decisions.
In addition to Iraq, Bush also expanded on remarks he made to Kelly indicating that he would extend Obama’s executive orders allowing undocumented immigrants to live and work in America until he passes legislation that addressed their status himself. Speaking to Hannity, Bush clarified that he would only extend DACA, Obama’s 2012 order protecting young undocumented immigrants, but “not necessarily their parents” through DAPA, a more far-reaching order that could defer deportations for millions of adult migrants but has yet to take effect thanks to a legal challenge making its way through the courts.