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Fighting the last war: Why Jeb Bush must speak clearly about lessons of Iraq

Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush (L) looks on as his brother Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks 19 April, 2006. Governor Bush was among several governors who met with the president after an Easter trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Slate.

What does Jeb Bush think about Iraq? It's not clear. When he's asked about it, he is quick to note that it's an issue where people won't find much daylight between him and his brother George W. Bush. "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," he told Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host.

There's no evidence that was what Kelly was going after, but there is an endless obsession with measuring him relative to his brother and father, so he's naturally wary. But he's also trying to twist any questions about his brother's foreign policy legacy in Iraq into gotcha journalism (see Mark Leibovich), making inquiries into the topic seem like a low-rent effort to sow filial discord. The implication is that if it weren't for that media fixation, there wouldn't be so much poking around on where he stands on Iraq.

That's obviously not the case. Or it shouldn't be anyway. Iraq and what went right and wrong are a part of any intelligent conversation about America's foreign policy posture, particularly the posture as Republicans see it. Republicans in the main believe that President Obama has been weak. GOP presidential candidates promise they will be strong. If Obama is at the weak end of the continuum, then George W. Bush's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan represent the opposite--resolute strength and risk-taking. So where do the various 2016 candidates fit on that continuum? That requires a thorough discussion of Obama's foreign policy--and also the policy he inherited.

These are the events that give shape and details to abstract discussions. We could allow ourselves to use vague words like weak and strong about the largest military intervention America has launched since the Vietnam War, but then we'd just blunder forward. So it's in everyone's interest to get specific, especially since we're going to spend so much time together in this presidential campaign.

It's hard to know what Bush believes not just because he doesn't seem to want to talk about Iraq, but when he does, it's confusing.

Knowing what he knows now, would Jeb Bush approve of the Iraq war? This is the question he was asked by Megyn Kelly. He seemed to answer a different one. Bush said, "I would," but then went on to say, "So would Hillary Clinton, by the way."

That's not quite right. Clinton would not. She has said that given what transpired after giving President Bush the power to go to war, she would not give him the authority again to wage it. She's said her vote was wrong. This raises questions about her judgment that she'll have to answer. Jeb Bush's answer suggested that perhaps he heard a different question than the one he was asked. He seemed to think he was asked to answer what he would have done in 2003 before the invasion. (A request for clarification from the campaign on Monday did not bring clarity, which suggests that the former governor will be revising and extending his remarks.)

So which does Bush believe? If there is no distance between Jeb and his brother, then he believes that the decision to invade was "the right decision," given all that has happened. That raises political and policy questions. First, the political one: What are voters going to think about this position given that the war's costs have been so high--nearly 4,500 Americans dead and 32,000 injured--and the promises of the invasion--a cache of weapons of mass destruction and democracy-spreading through the region--did not materialize.

Laura Ingraham, a conservative who is no Jeb Bush fan, found the claim outlandish. "You can't still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do," Ingraham said on her radio show in response to Bush's remarks. In a recent piece in National Review, Jim Geraghty asked the question, "Regardless of how you feel about George W. Bush, the pre-war intelligence, Michael Moore and the anti-war left, or the opportunistic flip-floppers like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, is there anyone who would argue that the price America paid in its battle in Iraq was NOT too high?"

In June of last year, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 18 percent of the country thought that the Iraq war was worth the cost. So a candidate who holds that view would seem to have some explaining to do if he is to convince voters that he should be the next commander in chief.

Given what we know now, if Jeb Bush believes that he would not have authorized the war, then he will find himself at odds with members of his brother's administration, such as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, who say America should be proud of removing Saddam Hussein from power. In other words, that the war was still worth it. If Jeb Bush has a different view, then he'll be asked if the war was a mistake. Bush may want to put it in the category that Hillary Clinton now puts her own war vote: an error made in good faith. Though unlike Clinton, Bush doesn't have to defend whether he did his homework before making that mistake.

But let's leave aside the topography of views. As a policy matter, the Iraq war and a candidate's position on it raises a host of important questions. Bush has said in deflecting questions about Iraq that he doesn't want to relitigate the past. But explaining what we've learned from the past and how we understand it is central to human experience; it's not some gotcha question. Also, as a practical matter, Republicans don't want to treat the past as off limits; doing so would rob them of an iconic example of strength from the past: Ronald Reagan's treatment of the Soviet Union.

Republicans also have an interest in maintaining conversations about U.S. obligations to countries where we have had a hand in blowing things up. That's in part what justifies rigorous questioning of Clinton and the misadventure in Libya that led to the Benghazi attacks. The country is a mess. The former secretary of state should explain why it is and why that outcome wasn't inevitable given U.S. policy.

Candidates collude to avoid the type of hypothetical questions they must rigorously engage once they take office. When they go on foreign trips organized by their campaign staffs, they only learn things that affirm their existing beliefs, which is what happened when Obama, then a senator, went to Iraq in 2008. So there is a conspiracy among all politicians to show us very little about their thinking on foreign affairs. Questions about history are all we have to go on to investigate how a candidate understands the relationship between action and consequence.

The U.S. military has studied the last decade of war and found 11 enduring lessons. What does the Iraq war tell Jeb Bush or any presidential candidate about the limits of U.S. military power, the possibility of nation-building in the Middle East, or our ability to predict outcomes when large-scale operations are launched? What does it teach about the limits of U.S. popular support for a process that certainly will last longer than civilian patience, and what doctrine should emerge from these lessons that guides the United States in the future? The Bush brothers agree that the security vacuum in Iraq after the invasion created the conditions that led to destabilization. How did that happen? Didn't people predict that might happen before the invasion was launched? Why weren't they listened to? Where did the process break down?

It is possible that after doing a careful assessment one could conclude that the United States should never have gone to war in Iraq in 2003 and should not have withdrawn from Iraq in 2011. Arguing that position or any position that seemed the product of hard thinking would inform a lot of voters about a candidate's worldview. Then voters would know what to expect if that candidate ever gave one of those grim addresses from the Oval Office explaining the rationale for the next U.S. military action. If we knew what the men and women seeking the presidency really thought, then there'd be no gotcha questions left to ask.