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George W. Bush on ISIS: America has learned its 'lesson' on Iraq

The former president pointed to the resurgence of violence in Iraq as validating his belief that US troops should have stayed instead of withdrawing.
Former US President George W. Bush speaks during an event on Aug. 6, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)
Former US President George W. Bush speaks during an event on Aug. 6, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

Former President George W. Bush is pointing to the resurgence of violence in Iraq as validating his belief that American troops should have stayed in that war-torn country instead of withdrawing in 2011.

"They're not ready to do it on their own, and that's the lesson we've learned recently," Bush told Fox News on Thursday.

It was a rare public comment on a policy matter from the former president, who has done few interviews since leaving office in early 2009. The implicit criticism was also noteworthy coming from Bush, who led the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war that ultimately cost nearly 4,500 American lives, trillions of dollars, and created the destabilizing environment that led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other extremist groups.

The interview came as U.S.-led airstrikes continue in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS militants have seized large swaths of territory. The American-trained Iraqi military has proved incapable of stopping the terrorist group, suffering a number of high-profile defeats and abandoning several Sunni cities. 

President Barack Obama last week authorized the first airstrikes in Syria against ISIS, before going to the United Nations to rally the international community behind his efforts to battle Islamic extremism. But he has continued to reiterate that U.S. troops will not be involved in the battle, a line his predecessor, Bush, did not draw.

Fox News has repeatedly emphasized that distinction, continually airing a clip from 2007 in which Bush warned against withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq prematurely. Conservative commentators have faulted Obama for failing to heed that warning, eliding the intelligence failures that drew the U.S. into that war in the first place. 

On Thursday, Bush said the world has been "better off" without former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was deposed in 2003 by the U.S., United Kingdom and coalition partners. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had accused the leader of possessing weapons of mass destruction and maintaining connections with al-Qaida, an assertion that was later revealed to be unfounded.

"The Iraqi people obviously are going to have to make a decision as to whether or not they want to live in peace," Bush told Fox during the interview, held at a Texas golf course where the former president was helping honor wounded soldiers. "Obviously we're still in Iraq ... We're there, and now we've got pilots in harm's way," he said.

Unlike Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney has put himself frequently in the national spotlight, especially in recent weeks, in what appears to be a concerted effort to revive the popularity of the former administration. Earlier this month, Cheney, who is considered one of the key architects of the Iraq War, returned to Capitol Hill to deliver a round of advice to congressional Republicans on foreign policy. 

In June, he sparred over Iraq in dueling TV interviews with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who blamed the Bush administration for the current crisis in Iraq and the rise of ISIS. That same month, the ex-vice president and his daughter Liz Cheney wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that blasted Obama for withdrawing from Iraq: "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many," they wrote.

President Bush left office in 2009 with the lowest approval rating -- 22% -- of any outgoing president since Gallup began its survey more than 70 years ago.  

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Bush's approval ratings have since lifted -- rising to the same level as Obama's in June -- buoying talk that a third Bush, Jeb, could also make a White House run. On Thursday, George W. Bush said he thinks his younger brother wants to be commander-in-chief and that "he'd be a great president." The former Florida governor, who could be a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, has recently revved up his public appearances around the country. 

But the elder Bush, who previously gave his brother a boost with public support in May, seems to be more optimistic than recent poll numbers. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed the former governor drawing poor favorability ratings, while a Quinnipiac poll depicted him hypothetically losing to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his home state.

The younger Bush, also the son of 41st President George H.W. Bush, told a group gathered at a Catholic Charities fundraiser in New York that he is "thinking about" running for president in two years, and would make a decision after the November midterm elections. But it remains unclear whether he would have the full support of a Republican party currently eyeing more popular conservatives like Sens. Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.