Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is growing increasingly isolated on the war in Iraq as Republican presidential rivals rush to distance themselves from his ambiguous answers as to whether his brother, President George W. Bush, should have invaded the country in 2003.
Bush has defended his brother's decision to go into Iraq on the grounds that American intelligence at the time suggested Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction. But he has refused to answer whether he believed the Iraq War should have been fought knowing today that there were no WMD and that the country would disintegrate into civil war along ethnic lines with American troops caught in the middle.
"If we're going to get back into hypotheticals, I think it does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot," Bush, who has not yet officially announced a presidential run, told a town hall audience in Nevada after receiving a question on the topic.
The most aggressive response came from presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Wednesday. Paul, who espouses a philosophy of non-interventionism in which the U.S. seeks to avoid foreign entanglements in general, told CNN that he opposed the war not only knowing what we know today, but when it was initiated as well.
“I think even at the time invading Iraq was a mistake and I thought the war even at the time was a mistake given the intelligence,” Paul said.
Paul argued that the “hypothetical” question to Bush was both legitimate and telling.
“I think it's a really important question and I don’t think it’s just hypothetical because we seem to have a recurring question in the Middle East whether or not it's a good idea to topple secular strongmen or secular dictators and what happens after that,” he said. “Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya was the same kind of scenario. We toppled Qaddafi, a secular dictator, but we got chaos and the rise of radical Islam.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who hews toward the party’s more traditional hawks, told moderator Charlie Rose at an appearance at the Council of Foreign Relations Wednesday that he would not have invaded Iraq knowing it did not harbor weapons of mass destruction.
“Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it,” Rubio said.
While Rubio indicated he would not have sanctioned the invasion with that foreknowledge, he has said as recently as six weeks ago that the war was a net good regardless of whether it was launched over inaccurate intelligence.
“The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein does not run Iraq,” Rubio told Fox News in March after being asked whether the war was a “mistake.”
Rubio made similar comments in 2010 while running for Senate when asked at a debate whether the world is “safer and better off for having gone to war in Iraq.” “I think the answer ultimately is yes,” Rubio said at the time.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another declared candidate, told Fox News on Tuesday that he would not have supported invading Iraq if he had known the intelligence was wrong.
“Of course not, I mean, the entire predicate of the war against Iraq was the intelligence that showed they had weapons of mass destruction and that there was a real risk they might use them,” Cruz said.
While Cruz said he couldn’t judge then-President Bush’s decision without having seen the intelligence himself, he reiterated his view that America should not get bogged down in nation-building after dispatching threats abroad.
“It is not the job of our soldiers, and sailors and airmen and Marines, to transform foreign nations into democratic utopias, it is the job to hunt down and kill terrorists who want to murder Americans before they can carry out jihad,” Cruz said.
The list goes on. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN on Tuesday that the 43rd president “made the best decision he could at the time” but that it was ultimately a mistake.
“If we knew then what we know now and I was the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war, but you know, we don’t get to replay history,” he said.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is also weighing a run, echoed Bush’s sensitivity for soldiers who served in Iraq but also offered up a clear answer regarding the decision to invade.
“There’s a lot of people who lost limbs and lives over there, OK?” Kasich told The Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday. “But if the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no.”
The question has resonance on the Democratic side as well, where President Obama's early opposition to the war was a major factor in his 2008 primary victory over then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq. Clinton has yet to address the issue this week, but she wrote in her 2014 memoirs "Hard Choices" that she regretted her vote.
"I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had," she wrote. "And I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."