The Corner

Politics & Policy

Why Jeb Bush’s Iraq Speech Was Important

Jeb Bush delivered a speech Tuesday evening, at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., that outlined his foreign policy vision for the Middle East. 

It was an important speech because he offered his own narrative of the events that have transpired in the Middle East, on his own terms, and he showed he’s capable of going on the offensive against Hillary Clinton on the subject. There was some consternation among Republicans a couple of weeks ago when Clinton and Bush addressed the National Urban League and, after Clinton knocked Bush in her remarks, Bush stood by like a wet noodle.   

On the subject of Iraq, it’s no secret Bush has been on the defensive. He’s been forced to answer questions rather than to pose them, and he hasn’t done so particularly skillfully.

But last night’s speech was something of a turning point. Bush offered his own narrative of the events that have transpired in the Middle East. He told a story in which the pivotal point in the region was not the invasion of Iraq but the surge, which both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed, and which they followed by withdrawing all American troops from the country. That move, he said, created the vacuum in which ISIS arose — it was, in his words, a “fatal error.” 

Here are the key paragraphs of Bush’s speech: 

No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially.  Yet in a long experience that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks, one moment stands out in memory as the turning point we had all been waiting for.  And that was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory.  It was a success, brilliant, heroic, and costly.  And this nation will never forget the courage and sacrifice that made it all possible.

So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary? That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well. ISIS grew while the United States disengaged from the Middle East and ignored the threat.  And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away. In all her record-setting travels, she stopped by Iraq exactly one time.  

Republican voters will be pleased to see not just that Jeb is capable of taking the fight to Hillary Clinton, but also that he is not afraid to talk about Iraq and the Middle East. The thinking, a Bush adviser tells, me, is that if the Iraq was was unpopular at the tail end of the Bush administration in 2008, ”What voters care about now is the threat of Islamic jihad and ISIS.” People have short memories. “We are framing this debate about the present threat,” the adviser says, ”and in that context are confident our message is the right one.” 

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