If you'd harbored the hope that the 2016 election might be one in which a major presidential candidate didn't soil the bed with regard to an Iraq War authorization vote -- well, I've got bad news. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) somehow managed to wrong-foot what should have been a "gimme" question during an interview with Fox News' Megyn Kelly that aired Monday.
KELLY: On the subject of Iraq... obviously very controversial. Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?
So, for those of you scoring at home, the correct answer to this question -- in which Bush gets accorded the benefit of total hindsight on all the bad decisions that led us to war in Iraq and all the bad outcomes that followed -- is "No." But here's how Bush responded:
BUSH: I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.
KELLY: You don't think it was a mistake?
BUSH: In retrospect the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty. And in retrospect, once we invaded and took out Saddam Hussein, we didn’t focus on security first. And the Iraqis, in this incredibly insecure environment, turned on the United States military because there was no security for themselves and their families. By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place as well? George W. Bush. Yes, I mean, so just for the news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.
When news of this part of the interview broke, it was widely characterized as Bush finding the one rake in an empty field and stomping down on it with both feet. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham opined: "You can't still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do. If you do, there has to be something wrong with you." Politico's Roger Simon wrote that he's been left "to wonder just how many times Jeb was dropped on his head as a child."
The Washington Examiner's Byron York was perhaps the most fervent in his criticism, calling Bush's response "disastrous":
If Jeb Bush sticks to his position -- that he would still authorize war knowing what we know today -- it will represent a step backward for the Republican Party. Other candidates before Jeb have grappled with the issue and changed their position. Look at the evolution of the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
In January 2008, Romney said, "It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now." In 2011, Romney said: "Well, if we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction -- if somehow we had been given that information, why, obviously we would not have gone in."
It is, indeed, a puzzlement. But on Tuesday, during an appearance on CNN's "New Day," veteran GOP strategist and frequent cable news panelist Ana Navarro said that she'd emailed Bush for clarification on his weird answer, and Bush replied that he'd "misheard the question."
Navarro went on to say: "He was referring to what we knew then, not what we know now... It’s the only way the entire answer makes sense, because then he goes [on] to say what you just posted him saying, that the information was faulty.”
Navarro has a point: This is the only way Bush's answer makes sense. If Bush thought he was being asked if he would have authorized the invasion based on what the intelligence was at the time (as opposed to what we know now), then the entirety of his answer -- in which he says he would have made the same decision that his brother made, while simultaneously acknowledging that it was a mistake -- is logical.
Of course, as Judd Legum points out over at ThinkProgess, all of this overlooks a central fact about the run-up to the Iraq War: It's actually too charitable by half to write off the disastrous military misadventure as a failure of intelligence. It's much more accurate to say that the George W. Bush administration misused or ignored intelligence. Per Legum:
A bipartisan, if contentious, report of the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the George W. Bush administration “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.” The report documented numerous statements made by the Bush administration to justify the war that were not supported by intelligence.
Mike McConnell, the Director Of National Intelligence under George W. Bush from 2007 to 2009, found the administration “set up a whole new interpretation because they didn’t like the answers” the intelligence community was giving them. Inside the Pentagon, an effort was led by Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith to “reinterpret information” provided to them by intelligence. It was Feith’s group that produced and promoted “false links between Iraq and al Qaeda.”
But whether Jeb Bush's answer was a misstep, a mis-hear or a glorious glossing over of the past, the bottom line is that -- like I said before! -- the best answer to Kelly's original question was simply "No." Alas!
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