PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — After a rough week of questions on Iraq, Jeb Bush looked to pivot to offense against President Obama on Wednesday at a roundtable in New Hampshire. His most prominent line of attack, however, raises questions about his brother’s handling of the war, as well — this time over the conflict’s end rather than its beginning.
“It got a little bumpy, but all is well now,” Bush said in response to a supportive question on Iraq. “The ship is stable.”
The event, hosted by local real estate developer and political broker Renee Plummer, was the kind of business-oriented campaign stop where Bush tends to be most comfortable. The participants offered him some encouragement early on, and the audience burst into applause after Bush declared in his opening remarks, “I love my mom and dad, I love my brother, and people are going to have just get over that."
After being pilloried by prominent conservative commentators and even some Bush administration veterans for taking several interviews to answer whether he would have authorized the Iraq War given perfect hindsight, Bush posed a hypothetical of his own to Obama regarding America’s withdrawal of all troops in 2011.
“The focus should be ‘Knowing what we know now, Mr. President, should you have kept 10,000 troops in Iraq?’" Bush said. “ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was president. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president. There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure, but the surge created a fragile but stable Iraq that the president could have built on and it would have not allowed ISIS [to grow].”
According to Bush, Obama “abandoned” Iraq based on “popular sentiment” against leaving troops behind. He said that decision loomed even larger this week now that the U.S.-backed Iraqi government had withdrawn from the key city of Ramadi in the face of an ISIS assault.
“You think about the family members who lost — our blood and treasure’s in Ramadi and they won, they won that battle,” he said. “It was hard fought and that stability has been lost.”
But the same attacks on Obama could apply to President George W. Bush, however, who negotiated and signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government in 2008 that required all American soldiers to leave Iraq. Efforts to leave a token force fell through over Americans demands that the military receive immunity from prosecution while stationed in the country, a condition Iraqi leaders refused to accept under either president.
Asked by msnbc about his brother’s agreement ending the war, Bush argued that Obama could have renegotiated in order to leave troops behind, as some military leaders had called for.
“This was a policy decision, not some legal decision,” Bush said. “The United States had enough influence to be able to deal with the immunity issue.”
Bush tied the withdrawal to politics, arguing that Obama had wanted to use a total end to the war as a selling point with voters.
“He made the decision to get out and, look, I don’t begrudge him that, but it was a decision he made based on a campaign promise, that’s what it was,” he said. “It wasn’t based on conditions in Iraq at the time and I think we're now paying a price for that.”