Jeb Bush on Thursday gave his fourth answer in as many days to the question of whether, with the benefit of hindsight, he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he were president then instead of his brother. “If we’re all supposed to answer hypothetical questions: Knowing what we know now, what would you have done?” Bush said at a campaign event in Arizona. “I would have not engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”
His remarks capped a week full of stumbles, hedges, and full-on dodges by a candidate who is seen as the closest thing to a front-runner in a crowded field of Republican hopefuls, in no small part because of the massive fundraising advantages provided by his family’s political dynasty. The whole thing started Monday, when Bush told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that he would have authorized the invasion. On Tuesday the former Florida governor backpedaled, saying that he misheard the question and did not know what he would have done. And on Wednesday he went into a defensive crouch, saying he wouldn’t answer such hypotheticals.
The if-you-knew-then question, meanwhile, posed no such problems for the rest of the GOP field. Among those who came out with a definitive answer in the time it took for Jeb to settle on one of his own were: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich. All said that they wouldn’t have authorized the invasion knowing what they do now.
“I don’t know how that was a hard question,” Santorum said following Bush’s final reversal. The former Pennsylvania senator, who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, added: “I’ve been asked that question a hundred times. The answer is pretty clear. The information was not correct and, while there was some things that were true, I don’t think nearly the weight to require us to go to war. Everybody accepts that now.”
Bush’s prolonged unwillingness to second-guess the war in hindsight was almost as remarkable as his complete lack of foresight that such a question was coming. The Iraq war—which had an American death toll of more than 4,400 and a U.S. price tag of at least $1.7 trillion—was a defining element of George W. Bush’s presidency, and still hangs over U.S. foreign policy today. Jeb and his army of foreign policy advisers should have known it was something he’d have to address eventually. That the campaign was unprepared to deal with the specter of the faulty intelligence that was used to justify the invasion suggests that Bush still hasn’t figured out whether he wants to run toward his brother’s legacy or away from it. As this week illustrated, he better make up his mind soon, because his GOP rivals aren’t going to allow him to do both.