The Corner

National Security & Defense

Jeb Bush Needs a Better Answer on Iraq

In spite of the fact that Jeb Bush had to know that questions about Iraq were going to dog him throughout his campaign, he seems to have not thought through the answer to a rather simple — though undeniably “gotcha” — question: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized” the invasion? First, he answered yes, but with the caveat that his answer was based on our knowledge at the time. Then, he said he “interpreted the question wrong” and said he doesn’t know what he would have done. Today, in his least satisfactory answer of all, he said: “If we’re going to get into hypotheticals I think it does a disservice for a lot of people that sacrificed a lot.” With all due respect, the people who sacrificed a lot are among the most interested in finding out how a commander-in-chief answers national security-related hypothetical questions.  

While I’m not running for president, let me briefly answer the question — in a manner that’s a bit different from Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, who’ve all said that we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq. We know Saddam’s regime supported terror attacks that were destabilizing the Middle East and aimed at Americans, violated its cease-fire agreements with the U.S., fired daily on American pilots enforcing lawful no-fly zones, defied U.N. resolutions regarding its WMD program, and maintained thousands of chemical munitions in stockpiles around the country. We also know that it’s possible to not only overthrow a despotic regime but to defeat a counterinsurgency — with the right tactics. And Syria teaches us that when Ba’athist regimes collide with the Arab Spring that jihad can and will spiral out of control, creating terrorist armies larger and more powerful than any we fought in Iraq.

Knowing what we know now, here’s the answer: We should have used overwhelming force to remove a genocidal tyrant and enemy of the United States, skipped any pretense of nation-building or democratization until Iraq was stabilized, installed an allied regime that could stand as a bulwark not just against a crumbling Syria but also a jihadist Iran, and stood by that regime as long as necessary to maintain stability. Had we followed that course of action — had we showed the strength of a true military and economic superpower — we would have no ISIS, no lost victory in the Middle East, and Iran would be geographically and militarily isolated. Ask yourself, would America be safer if there were not only no Saddam, but no ISIS and a weaker Iran?

Yes, unquestionably mistakes were made in Iraq, and Jeb Bush is right to point that out, but those mistakes did not start or end with George W. Bush, and the most immediately consequential mistake was made by President Obama. He squandered victory, withdrew our troops, and empowered the regions worst actors — ISIS and Iran — all at a cost of tens of thousands of lives. Now that is an action that represents a true “disservice” to those who sacrificed.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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