Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said recently that when he finally spelled out his foreign policy views, he would focus on the future and not “re-litigate” the wars his brother led in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s about trying to create a set of principles and ideas that will help us move forward,” he said in a speech in his home state.
Related: Jeb Bush’s Speech: What He Said, What He Really MeantBut during a major foreign policy address on Wednesday in President Obama’s home town of Chicago, the almost certain candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination veered into dangerous political terrain as he sorted through former President George W. Bush’s blunders and occasional triumphs during the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq after 9/11.
Speaking in the passive tense popular with politicians trying to dance around inconvenient truths, Jeb Bush told a gathering of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.”
On the Bush administration’s long-discredited assertion that Iraq president Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction that justified an invasion in 2003, Jeb Bush said his brother fell victim to faulty intelligence.
“Using the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction turns out not to be accurate,” Bush said.
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As for President Bush’s decision to dismantle the Iraqi military that drove some military officers into the arms of rebels and terrorists, Jeb Bush conceded, “Not creating an environment of security after the successful taking out of Hussein was a mistake because Iraq wanted security more than anything else.”
But Bush praised his brother’s 2007 decision to increase substantially the American troop count in Iraq to provide security to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province – even as the public and political leaders clamored for an end to the war.
“My brother’s administration through the surge was one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president has done,” Jeb Bush said. “It was hugely successful and it created a stability that when [President Obama] came in, he could have built on it to create a fragile but more stable situation that would have not allowed for a void to be filled.”
Bringing his colloquy on Iraq full circle, he sharply blamed Obama for weak and myopic military and foreign policy leadership in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
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Bush said the president’s missteps and indecisiveness paved the way for the rise of ISIS and contributed to a costly and destructive civil war in Syria in which President Bashar Hafez al Assad has gained the upper hand. Bush said the power vacuum also encouraged Iran to exert more influence among Shiite forces in Iraq.
“The void has been filled because we have created the void,” Bush said. “So the lesson I think is [the importance of] engagement. Whether it’s always the United States, that’s another subject. I don’t think it has to be.”
“ISIS didn’t exist three or four years ago,” Bush reminded his audience. “In fact, the guy who is the supreme leader [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] . . . he was in a prison in southern Iraq.”
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One thing Jeb Bush will have to come to terms with: Recent polls suggest many GOP voters are suffering from Bush fatigue. A new Quinnipiac University survey of the battleground states of Colorado, Iowa and Virginia found voters are saying by 4 to 1 margins that Bush’s family ties make them less likely to vote for him when balloting begins.
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During his speech, Bush distanced himself from the record of his father and brother, declaring that while he loves his family, “I’m my own man – and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experience.”
Overall, Bush’s brief discourse on his brother’s role in the Middle East was deft and insightful, while occasionally stretching the truth. Some scholars note, for example, that it’s disingenuous to blame the CIA and intelligence community for faulty information about the Iraqi threat when the Bush White House repeatedly invoked the specter of an Iraq allied with al-Qaeda terrorists and in possession of nuclear weapons.
While Obama has been criticized for prematurely declaring an end to the Iraq War and withdrawing most U.S. troops by the end of 2011, Iraqi officials had by then nearly nine years to prepare to stand on their own.
Still, as Bush argues, Obama’s unwillingness to attack Assad’s murderous regime or arm moderate Syrian rebels to fight Assad left the door open to the rise of ISIS and other terror groups in Syria and Iraq.
Related: 20 Facts about Baghdadi, the Elusive ISIS Leader
“It’s a clever framing by Bush because he obviously is re-litigating the whole thing,” noted Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues.
O’Hanlon said Bush is essentially asking Americans for “a little deference” in determining how far he must go to re-litigate his brother’s decision to invade Iraq, while launching broadsides against Obama’s conduct in the Middle East. “If it’s fair for him to go after Obama, then it’s fair for the whole war to be reconsidered, including the initial decision,” O’Hanlon said. “It means you can’t escape, no matter who your brother is.”
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