Jeb Bush dismisses "hypothetical" questions about Iraq War

Last Updated May 14, 2015 8:18 AM EDT

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday defended his reticence to answer questions about whether he'd have invaded Iraq in 2003, knowing what he knows now - that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country.

"Talking about the future is more than fair," Bush explained during a press availability in Reno, Nevada, where traveled to gauge support for a potential 2016 presidential bid. "Talking about the past and saying, 'How would you have done something after the fact?' is a little tougher and doesn't exactly change anything."

"I made calls to people, to family members who lost loved ones and I think out of respect for them ... of course, given the power of looking back and having that, anybody would have made different decisions, there's no denying that," Bush added. "But to delve into that and not focus on the future, I think is where I need to draw the line."

The issue of Iraq is particularly nettlesome for Bush, whose brother, former President George W. Bush, bore ultimate responsibility for the decision to invade the country in 2003. At the time, Bush claimed Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction, and that the Iraqi government was affiliated with the September 11 terror attacks, but both claims have since been proven false.

For the rest of Bush's presidency, the war dragged on his approval ratings, and it now presents a complicated legacy for Jeb Bush as he weighs a presidential bid of his own.

The former Florida governor incited the flurry of questions about Iraq during an interview last week with Fox News' Megyn Kelly, who asked him, "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?"

"I would've," Bush replied, "and so would've Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would've almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got."

That didn't answer the question Kelly asked, though -- the journalist asked him to consider what he knows now, not what he knew then, and Bush appeared to completely dodge the question about hindsight.

In a later interview with conservative radio host Sean Hannity, Bush said he simply misunderstood Kelly's question.

"I interpreted the question wrong, I guess," he said. "I was talking about, given what people knew then."

Bush then refused to answer a question about whether he'd have authorized the invasion, knowing what he knows now. He suggested that kind of "hypothetical" inquiry doesn't accomplish anything.

"I don't know what that decision would have been," he said. "That's a hypothetical, but mistakes were made, as they always are in life."

It was that answer he reiterated on Wednesday, saying, "Rewriting history is hypothetical."

Bush did manage to take a dig at President Obama on the issue. He said that whatever mistakes were made by former President Bush, security in Iraq was on the upswing when his brother left office, but Mr. Obama squandered the hard-won gains by failing to secure an agreement to allow a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

"You can rewrite history all you want but the simple fact is that we're in a much more unstable place because America pulled back," Bush said in response to a voter who said his brother created the instability that has allowed violent extremism in Iraq to thrive.