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The right candidates, the wrong debate

Republicans are failing miserably with the "if you knew then..." question. That matters, but it's still the wrong question.
It's been about a week since Jeb Bush told Fox News that he would have launched the war in Iraq, even if he knew then what he knows now, touching off a renewed debate about the calamitous conflict and the degree to which Republicans understand the scope of the failed invasion. Not surprisingly, the question Bush struggled to answer became the new GOP litmus test.
And in some ways, that's a good thing. Over the course of a presidential campaign, there's real value in having White House hopefuls -- in both parties -- talk about the biggest foreign policy and national security fiasco in a generation. Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) cringe-worthy incoherence on the subject yesterday, for example, told voters something important -- about his preparedness, about his depth of understanding, and about his flawed judgment.
But more valuable still would be better answers to better questions.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) talked to the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin late last week, and when asked the "if you knew then..." question, the Republican governor offered a striking response:

"Any president would have likely taken the same action [President George W.] Bush did with the information he had, even Hillary Clinton voted for it, but knowing what we know now, we should not have gone into Iraq."

Walker quickly pivoted to blaming President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for not stabilizing Iraq enough to satisfy Republicans after the failed Bush/Cheney war destabilized the entire Middle East.
But the notion that any president, given the information Bush had, would have "taken the same action," is demonstrably ridiculous. Indeed, the absurdity of Walker's line is a reminder of how flawed last week's debate really was -- as if the argument can be narrowed to those who believe Iraq had WMD and those who didn't.
Reality paints a very different picture. Indeed, as informative as it's been to see leading GOP candidates struggle mightily with the obvious question, the problem is the question itself lets Republicans off the hook in ways it shouldn't.
The more constructive debate would force these national candidates to confront a different set of facts: George W. Bush and his team lied the nation into a disastrous war, the consequences of which we're still trying to resolve. The "if you knew then..." question is predicated on a bogus assumption: that the intelligence agencies failed the well-intentioned president, who did his best with the information he provided.
It's a garbage talking point from those who are uncomfortable with what actually transpired. The New York Times' Paul Krugman's latest column drives the point home nicely.

The Iraq war wasn't an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war. The fraudulence of the case for war was actually obvious even at the time: the ever-shifting arguments for an unchanging goal were a dead giveaway. So were the word games -- the talk about W.M.D that conflated chemical weapons (which many people did think Saddam had) with nukes, the constant insinuations that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11.

The intelligence was wrong, but it was also manipulated by those who pressured the agencies to tell the Republican White House what it wanted to hear.
To Scott Walker's point that "any president would have likely taken the same action," we know that's wrong, largely because current events tell us so -- I seem to recall a guy by the name of Barack Obama having the good sense and good judgment to get this right at the time, even when so much of the political and media establishment was wrong. It's one of the reasons he's in the Oval Office today.
In a twist that's ironic as it is tragic, many of those same people who were so spectacularly wrong at the time are now (a) busy running around complaining about Obama foreign policy; (b) trying to blame Democrats for the Republicans' historic debacle; (c) advising Republican presidential candidates on matters of national security; or (d) all of the above. No one considers this scandalous -- or even laughable -- because of some unwritten rule that the Beltway created that separates Republicans from any sense of accountability or responsibility, all the while pretending the GOP still has credibility on policy towards Iraq, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
For more along these lines I heartily encourage readers to check out related commentary from the Washington Post's Greg Sargent and TPM's Josh Marshall.