Politics & Policy

The Iraq Question Conservatives Need to Do a Better Job Answering

(Laura Segall/Getty)

I spent about 20 years getting people ready to answer questions from tough and even hostile inquisitors. It is what trial lawyers do. I can thus attest that over-preparing a witness can be worse than failing to prepare the witness at all. Ironically, this is especially so with a smart witness.

A person of merely average intelligence is apt to follow advice. A seasoned lawyer can quickly demonstrate how foolish he can be made to look if he doesn’t listen carefully to the questions, or if he readily accepts a loaded question’s premise. The smart guy who radiates self-confidence is often a different story. He outsmarts himself. He thinks, “What would I ask me?” Worse, he manages to hear the question that he calculates should be asked, which is not always the question that is actually asked. When he is over-prepared — when he and his handlers have pored over his vulnerabilities and meticulously scripted what he will say when grilled about them — the smart guy will give the scripted answer. It can end up sounding dumb, even smarmy, if he has the question wrong.

I think that’s what happened to Jeb Bush when he was asked about Iraq by Fox News’s Megyn Kelly this week.

RELATED: How Should Jeb Bush Have Answered the Iraq War Question?

There has been head-scratching in the commentariat. Jeb is a very successful politician and much more at ease with the press than the other successful politicians in his famous political family. So how could someone that bright and able be unprepared for the inevitable question about his brother’s momentous decision to oust Saddam Hussein? But I don’t think that was the problem. I think he was too prepared . . . and because he is now candidate Jeb Bush rather than policy wonk Jeb Bush, we got the scripted campaign answer rather than the thoughtful one.

Governor Bush knows that the war in Iraq has proved to be a catastrophe. He knows his last name guarantees he will be questioned about it. He knows his opposition, if he gets the GOP nomination, is likely to be Hillary Clinton. Being a smart guy, he anticipates that he will be asked whether President Bush should have invaded Iraq — after all, when not writing checks to the Clinton Foundation, eminences of the left-leaning media will want to put him in the uncomfortable position of criticizing his brother.

RELATED: Republican Presidential Contenders’ Cowardly, After-the-Fact Opposition to the Iraq War

After mulling it over a few thousand times, Jeb and his advisers obviously decided the best way to blunt this line of attack is to highlight that its beneficiary, Mrs. Clinton, was just as gung-ho as W back in the day. When the topic inevitably comes up, he is programmed to minimize the Iraq debacle as a matter of faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, opine that his brother made the right call based on what was believed to be true, and stress that Hillary — based on her enthusiastic vote in support of the war (to say nothing of her husband’s signing of a 1998 statute calling for regime change in Iraq) — would have made exactly the same call.

All well and good in the lemons-into-lemonade sense. Except Megyn Kelly didn’t ask whether it was the right decision back in the day. She asked whether it was the right decision “knowing what we know now.”

Presidential campaigns are all about hypotheticals.

Having seen too many over-prepped people recite the script instead of listening carefully to the question, I’m inclined to cut Bush some slack for what, in context, was a poor answer. More bothersome have been his second, third, and fourth hacks at it, recounted by The Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren.

After clarifying that he “misheard” Ms. Kelly’s question, he dismissed it as “hypothetical.” Later, he said he did not want to “relitigate” the war.

Of course, presidential campaigns are all about hypotheticals. We’re trying to figure out who is the best person for a job that is all about handling tough unknowns that will occur two and more years from now. What else is there but to ask, and expect candidates to answer, “What would you do if X happened?” Moreover, the Iraq situation continues to replicate itself (see, e.g., Libya and Syria), and we will be living for years with the consequences of errors in judgment. Few things in American history have more cried out to be “relitigated.”

That said, Bush did acknowledge in a later public appearance the need to focus on “the lessons learned.” The lessons he cites, however, are not encouraging. He says, “If you’re going to go to war, make sure that you have the best intelligence possible.”

This jejune observation grossly understates the problem in Iraq, which, he suggested, was simply that “the intelligence broke down.”

Third Division soldiers in Baghdad, April 2003 (Scott Nelson/Getty)

There is no doubt that the intelligence on the state of Saddam Hussein’s WMD stockpiles and programs inflated the threat he posed. Well beyond that, though, was a thoroughgoing failure to grasp the extent and motivations of the enemy, coupled with a mismatch between American interests and the Bush administration’s war aims.

Had he focused on Ms. Kelly’s question, I wish Governor Bush, or some GOP candidate, had said he would not have authorized an invasion called “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” To be sure, President Bush was invested in Iraqi freedom. The American people, however, were not.

The United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, by a global jihadist movement that was aided and abetted by state sponsors and that was not confined to a country or two. Our national interests were to eradicate the jihadists’ capacity to project power and eliminate their state sponsors — especially regimes likely to supply them with weapons. Chief among those regimes was Iran; further down the chain was Iraq.

There was overwhelming support for the proposition that Saddam Hussein’s regime should be ousted. There was little public appetite for an experiment in Iraqi democracy-building.

For a democracy such as ours to be successful in fighting wars, there must be public support for the war aims. There was overwhelming support for the proposition that Saddam Hussein’s regime should be ousted. There was little public appetite for an experiment in Iraqi democracy-building — especially once it was clear that we would not be “hailed as liberators” and that the venture would be prohibitively expensive.

The bipartisan public consensus that developed prior to the invasion was that Saddam’s regime was an unacceptable threat to American national security in a post-9/11 environment. Regardless of whether one now believes that conclusion was flawed, there never was a consensus that American national security hinged on Iraq’s post-Saddam political stability and evolution. It demonstrably did not: Iraq’s Islamic culture did not want Western liberalism, and there is neither logical nor empirical support for the conclusion that Country A’s being a democracy renders Country B safer from jihadist terror – indeed, jihadists thrive on exploitation of the freedoms available in Western democracies.

President Bush initially defined “victory in Iraq” as “helping the Iraqi people defeat the terrorists and build an inclusive democratic state,” such that Iraq would be “peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism.”

Most of those goals were fanciful and immaterial to the promotion of American national security. That is the most important lesson learned. Yet, Jeb Bush reaffirms his brother’s dubious linkage of our security and Iraq’s. On Wednesday, he opined that Iraq demonstrates the need to “have a strategy of security,” and that, while this broke down for a time, his brother had “solved that mess with the surge and created when he left a much more stable Iraq.”

This, again, is a candidate’s argument. Bush is retailing the specious claim, often voiced by Senator John McCain, that the troop surge ordered by President Bush in 2007 had the Iraq War “won.” Therefore, so the story goes, it was President Obama who “lost” the war by failing to leave a residual force behind to preserve the security gains.

As retired Army General Daniel Bolger compellingly explains in his recent memoir, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the surge did not win the war. It merely slowed the descent into chaos. It bought time to allow the Iraqis another chance to overcome their internecine savagery. But by any measure, the Iraq War was, by then, a failure — whether we use President Bush’s lofty above-quoted aims, or we simply compare what America’s security situation was before our troops invaded with what it was after they left.

RELATED: Iraq Was Then, Syria Is Now

The surge was an exercise in mitigation. There was no plan to deal with Iran, which the bipartisan Beltway was then regarding as a potential stabilizing influence even as the mullahs fueled anti-American jihadists. There was nothing close to a commitment to the kind of resource-intensive, open-ended occupation that would have been required to turn Iraq into an American asset in the fight against radical Islam.

You cannot end a war that the enemy is still fighting by picking up and leaving. The jihad is not over.

Jeb Bush is not alone in failing to grapple with these failures. All of us who supported the Iraq invasion must answer for them. Could we realistically have just toppled Saddam and departed without being enmeshed in the aftermath, leaving the Iraqis to figure it out for themselves? And even if we could have avoided the immense sacrifices of blood and treasure, would ousting Saddam have been a victory in the war if the net effect were to increase the influence of Iran — a more consequential enabler of jihadist terror?

RELATED: Obama’s Confused Iraqi Policy

It was appalling for President Obama, elevating ideological animus over national interest, to discard the heroically won achievements of our troops. Charles Krauthammer is right to urge that, regardless of whether one believes Iraq was a worthy cause, the current president owed us his best effort at playing the hand he was dealt: circumstances that gave him an opportunity to pressure Iraq into accepting an American presence that could have served our strategic interests. Obama squandered it — contributing mightily to the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the emergence of ISIS, even as he appeases and empowers Iran.

Still, the most important thing to remember about Obama is what we have been saying since he withdrew from Iraq: You cannot end a war that the enemy is still fighting by picking up and leaving. The jihad is not over. That means it is not conclusively lost, but it is also not nearly done with us. The next president will have difficult decisions to make. Making the right ones will require correcting the wrong ones.

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