The Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda Approach to Foreign Policy

Pondering Jeb Bush’s flubbed answer about invading Iraq.

As a leading GOP presidential candidate and brother of the former president, Jeb Bush had to know he was going to be asked about Iraq sometime during the campaign. That “sometime” came this week as Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked him whether, “knowing what we know now,” he would have authorized the invasion of Iraq. Jeb used the answer to both speculate that Hillary Clinton would have done (in fact, did) the same thing and declare that, “if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”

The blowback was predictable, and he quickly walked back his answer, insisting he’d misheard the question. He did seem to answer the “knowing what we knew then” version. Now he says flatly, “I would not have gone into Iraq.”

Needless to say, there’s been a lot of debate about the fitness of the younger Bush’s initial answer. Conservatives ponder whether he needed a better one, made “a rookie mistake,” or was exactly right. There are also those who thought the question itself was “completely stupid.”

Stupid or not, the question was bound to come up as a result of the ongoing mess we’re dealing with in the Middle East, and we now have over a decade of hindsight at our disposal. There weren’t the quantities of weapons of mass destruction everyone — even those who quickly pretended otherwise — originally believed were in Iraq. Intelligence estimates at the time were all George W. Bush had to go on, not “what we know now.” There was also Saddam Hussein’s established record of atrocities, belligerence and threats to U.S. interests. So, we eliminated a bloody dictator, the byproduct of which convinced Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi that he should abandon his own efforts at a WMD program.

Obviously, the “knowing what we know now” question is valid only as a hypothetical, since we cannot turn back the hands of time. But if we’re playing the hindsight game, we should also consider what the consequences of inaction might have been. Might Saddam Hussein now be a nuclear-powered menace? And might the region have already experienced its first nuclear calamity? We can only deal with the here and now, and the window of opportunity for taking action isn’t generally unlimited.

Indeed, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed, “The analyst can allot whatever time is necessary to come to a clear conclusion; the overwhelming challenge to the statesman is the pressure of time. The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable. The analyst has available to him all the facts; he will be judged on his intellectual power. The statesman must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them; he will be judged by history on the basis of how wisely he managed the inevitable change and, above all, by how well he preserves the peace.”

Surely the U.S. made irretrievable mistakes during the Bush years — primarily not fighting hard enough to win decisively quickly. The surge was all well and good, but it came years too late. And it likely will be many more years before any solution benefiting U.S. interests will take hold in the cradle of civilization. We didn’t call this the “Long War” for naught.

One thing that’s painfully evident from the last six years, however, is that Barack Obama is continuing to make irretrievable mistakes in Iraq. He squandered American blood and treasure with his foolish pullout, and then tried to revise the story by blaming George W. Bush. History will be the judge of his results, and so far the progress has been lacking to the point where we are nearly back at square one — albeit with different tyrants in charge. Would ISIL have arisen from al-Qaida’s ashes if Obama hadn’t abandoned Iraq?

That brings us to another “what if” question that begs to be asked of the American people: If we knew in 2008 what we know now, would we have elected such a woefully inept and inexperienced commander in chief?

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