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Jeb Bush’s Iraq Position Is Terrible. Hillary’s Is No Better


You can’t be more straightforward: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked presumptive GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush about the Iraq War. Without hesitation, Bush replied: “I would have.”

Jeb goes on to qualify his answer, adding that, “so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

Well, even if we give Bush the benefit of the doubt, and concede that he’s probably answering the question “knowing what they knew then, would you authorize war?” rather than the one Kelly posed, it is still remarkably tone deaf. For one thing, as a political matter, polls find large number of Americans (even many Republicans) believe Iraq wasn’t worth the price. And considering all the setbacks and lives lost during the campaign, voters deserve a more nuanced answer from a person vying to be commander in chief.

For many people, Jeb’s comments will be disqualifying because they see the war in Iraq as a disaster. Not necessarily a disaster that has anything to do with conspiratorial motivations liberals assign to the war—no cabal of neocon imperialists trading lives for oil or empire—but a disaster when judged against the promises made by the Bush administration. And it wasn’t only about intelligence failures. Even setting aside the fact that we never found WMDs, the war failed to create a self-sustaining, vibrant democracy in Iraq—or, for that matter, any genuine thirst for freedom elsewhere in Muslim world. And we’re now still dealing with conflicts shaken loose by that war.

But that’s not exactly a difficult position for me—or others who supported the invasion in 2003—to take. Certainly, not after the benefit of more than decade of reflection. So while Jeb should be held accountable for his obtuse position on Iraq, shouldn’t the people who sanctioned and advocated for the removal of Baathist regime be the focus of similar condemnation?

In Hard Choices, Clinton, “apologized” (as the press put it at the time) for giving President Bush authorization to use force in Iraq, writing, “I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong.”

In a 2006 interview on the “Today” show, Hillary answered the question Jeb was asked: “Obviously, if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn’t have been a vote.” Clinton went on to say, “I certainly wouldn’t have voted that way.”

When a policy fails, or the public turns against it, admitting that you wouldn’t vote for it doesn’t exactly make you Bonhoeffer. If you or I knew what we know now, then we’d be (almost) perfect. And apologies are not a exemption from accountability. The problem with Hillary Clinton’s position is that none of us ever “know what we know now” when we make decisions.  Her job, then, was to challenge the executive branch and remain duly skeptical of its case—which she was not.

But even if we suspend our disbelief and believe her initial vote wasn’t driven by political expediency (remember, voters supported an invasion in big numbers) or that her so-called apology wasn’t driven by political expediency (by that time she switched, a big majority of Democrats believed Iraq was a mistake), how does a voter know the next time Hillary is faced with one of those hard choices, she won’t make another mistake? The Iraq War vote was the most consequential the former New York senator would ever take and, by her own admission, she failed. Isn’t that the way voters judge candidates who run on their experience and wisdom? Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone has to be president.

And Hillary wasn’t just fooled by faulty or misleading intelligence, or led astray by a dishonest administration. In her floor speech defending the vote to invade, she made a passionate case for intervention little different from the one the administration was making for the long term prospects of teh region.

Here’s a snippet of her floor speech arguing for war:

In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security.

Now this much is undisputed. The open questions are: what should we do about it? How, when, and with whom?

Because of that, economic turmoil ultimately defined the 2008 elections, we may forget that the most consequential distinction between Clinton and Obama—other than raw political talent—was the war. In fact, Obama rose to prominence as an Iraq War critic in 2002. Though Clinton may not have lost the nomination directly over her vote authorizing war, it was the issue that propelled her opponent and the grassroots hostility to her candidacy. Even knowing what they know now about Hillary, Democrats will have to forgive her because she’s “apologized,” but mostly because they really have no choice. Yet, it’s worth remembering that if candidates were judged on their retroactive positions, they would all be perfect.