Jeb Wishes the Bush War Away

Jeb Bush at the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia

by Paul Pillar

Jeb Bush’s foreign policy speech at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs has received generally poor reviews, and it not hard to see why. The slips of the tongue and of facts did not help, but more fundamental was the substance, or a lack thereof, that entitled people to ask, “where’s the beef?” W. James Antle characterized accurately most of the substance as “interventionist clichés.” Bush endeavored to criticize the Obama administration, of course, for its policies toward the turbulent Middle East, but the listener was hard-pressed to discern from the speech exactly what Bush would be doing differently there.

That uncertainty makes all the more important Bush’s handling of a topic that came up in the question-and-answer portion of his appearance: the Iraq War. One might be inclined to cut Bush some slack here in the interest of brotherly love, by not expecting him to repudiate, directly and explicitly, what was by far the biggest endeavor of his older sibling’s presidency. But what about the presidency of his father, for whom Jeb Bush also expressed his love in his speech? George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War was a repudiation of the wisdom of George H.W. Bush and his advisers in not following up the U.S. victory in Kuwait in 1991 with an attempt at regime change in Iraq. Later events, of course, confirmed that the 1991 decision was indeed a wise choice. The overall foreign policy of H.W. also was far more successful (including skillful management of the U.S. side of the end of the Cold War) than the policy of W. It would seem to be consistent with familial love and with good politics, as well as making good foreign policy sense, for Jeb Bush to identify more with the father than with the older brother.

Jeb Bush’s partial and circumlocutious acknowledgment of some of the things associated with the Iraq War that went wrong did not reflect any such good sense, and only served to perpetuate some of the misconceptions that promoters of the war have pushed ever since. “There were mistakes made in Iraq,” said Bush, using one of the hoariest semantic devices to acknowledge in the passive voice that everyone realizes something is a disaster but to try to avoid identifying oneself with that disaster. Of course there was in Bush’s answer the usual reference to bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, thus perpetuating the misconception that this is what drove the decision to go to war rather than being a convenient and scary selling point to muster public support for a war launched for other (mostly neocon) reasons. If Bush has any doubt about that he could ask one of the most fervent promoters of the war, Paul Wolfowitz, who admitted as much in an unguarded comment in an interview and who, astoundingly, has not been banished to a policy wonk wilderness for being so closely identified with the enormous blunder that the Iraq War was but instead is now on Jeb Bush’s list of foreign policy advisers.

One of the mistakes that were made in Iraq, said Bush, was “not creating an environment of security after the successful taking-out of Hussein.” This perpetuates the myth, dear to many promoters of the war, that if things did not go well it was all just a matter of flawed execution. This totally evades the grand, fundamental mistake of launching the war in the first place. It also begs the question of just how big and costly an effort Bush thinks it would have taken to “create an environment of security.” Maybe he could refer back to the judgment of the Army chief of staff at the time, Eric Shinseki, whose assessment on this question got him shunned and expelled from the administration of George W. Bush.

Jeb Bush lauded his brother’s re-escalation of the U.S. war in Iraq—the “surge” of 2007—as one of “the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done.” The surge tamped down the violence of the Iraqi civil war enough so that when George W. Bush left office he could say that the flames in Iraq were not leaping as high as they were a couple of years earlier, and he could leave the remaining mess to his successor without having to say that Iraq fell completely apart on his watch. That remaining mess included a civil war that was still being waged at a substantial, even if reduced, pace, a failure of the surge to facilitate political accommodation and compromise among the Iraqi factions, and the operations of extremist groups—including the group that now calls itself Islamic State and that was born as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Shoving such messes aside (at a cost of additional American blood and treasure) just enough to be able to get out the door and slam it shut while leaving office is hardly an act of courage, political or otherwise.

The Iraq War was not just the biggest endeavor of George W. Bush’s presidency; it was one of the biggest and costliest endeavors of U.S. foreign policy of the last several decades, as well as being the only major offensive war that the United States has initiated in more than a century. American voters are entitled to expect candidates for their nation’s highest office to come fully to terms with the reality of that piece of recent history. Jeb Bush is not the only one who has to (Hillary Clinton still has to answer for the vote she cast as a senator in favor of the war resolution in 2002). But Bush’s handling of the subject in his appearance this past week leaves several serious and gnawing questions. Would he, if president, put the nation at risk of getting into anything like the Iraq mess with another war of choice? What does his handling of this subject say about his attitudes about the use of military force, and his beliefs about what it can and cannot accomplish? Does he have any appreciation for the severe and widespread consequences the war has caused, and for the relationship of the war to some of the most serious problems in the Middle East today? Brotherly love is insufficient reason to sweep such questions under the rug.

This article was published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.

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  1. Just what this country can’t afford and doesn’t need, a 3 peat. If Wolffie is on his committee, then that’s enough to reject his bid for P.O.T.U.S. Besides, look at the mess in Florida’s housing/court debacle, which happened on his watch. If the Neocons/Israel has as much sway in the future as they do today, well, I don’t need repeat what kind of disaster awaits. Also, let’s not forget the costs to win, which has to be paid back to those who put up the money. All things considered, the 3 Presidents since H.W.Bush, have sold out the people of the U.S. with lies and stealing treasure like there’s no tomorrow. I suppose the one redeeming factor is the downward slide of the U.S. being the top dog would go into overdrive. Considering the hell-bent drive to prevent a solution with Iran, if “Jeb” got elected, then WW3 starting with Iran would take place, making the looting of the Treasury of the past, look like child’s play. I suppose Netanyahoo would be running for Vice, like Cheney. What a nightmare that would be, outdoing anything Steven King could come up with by a mile or 3.

  2. “If Bush has any doubt about that he could ask one of the most fervent promoters of the war, Paul Wolfowitz, who admitted as much in an unguarded comment in an interview…”

    What is the Wolfowitz quote, please?

  3. The Iraq surge in 2007 was supposed to be led by the Iraq government and was supposed to provide security for reconciliation, but of course neither was true and that, plus some other faulty US actions, led to ISIS which is principally supported financially by another US ally Kuwait. So the “U.S. victory in Kuwait in 1991” was another in a long list of US failures by family Bush.

    Personally I blame Barbara Bush for the vast failures of her menfolk, with perhaps more to come. “Some people claim there’s a woman to blame…”–Jimmy Buffett (…But I know it’s my own damned fault.)

  4. @ Dabney
    Paul Wolfowitz: In an interview with The Sunday Times to mark the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, he said there “should have been Iraqi leadership from the beginning”, rather than a 14-month occupation led by an American viceroy and based on “this idea that we’re going to come in like [General Douglas] MacArthur in Japan and write the constitution for them”.

    There have been many more mea culpas on Iraq including:
    –George Bush: “It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. As president I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq. . . “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.”
    –Bill O’Reilly: “Well, my analysis [of Iraq WMD] was wrong and I’m sorry. I am much more skeptical of the Bush administration now than I was at the time.”
    –Al Neuharth (USA Today): “A year ago I criticized Hillary Clinton for saying “this (Bush) administration will go down in history as one of the worst. She’s wrong,” I wrote. “I was wrong. This is my mea culpa. Not only has Bush cracked that list, but he is planted firmly at the top. The Iraq war, of course, has become Bush’s albatross.”
    –TNR: “The New Republic deeply regrets its early support for this war.”
    –The New York Times: “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged – or failed to emerge.”

  5. Goodness Don, are you looking into your “crystal ball” here and forecasting the “mea culpas” about Iran and the inside information that says they are going to make a Nuclear bomb, so we better bomb them first, turning Iran into a swath of destruction, death, despair, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, now Syria? Oh, Somalia & Ukraine too. I might add, with Netanyahoo & others in his Government encouraging E.U.Jews to immigrate to Israel, might that be swell the ranks of its population or something more sinister that might be in the works? After all, we surely know what collateral damage is today, don’t we?

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