The most interesting thing about Jeb Bush’s statement that, even knowing Saddam Hussein had no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, he’d still have supported the Iraq War, isn’t the beating he’s taking from liberals and the punditocracy. It’s the beating he’s taking from conservatives. The Washington Post compiled some of the right-wing outrage. The appalled include The Washington Examiner’s Byron York, who wrote that, “If Jeb Bush sticks to his position—that he would still authorize war knowing what we know today—it will represent a step backward for the Republican Party.” And talk show host Laura Ingraham, who fumed that, “You can’t still think that going into Iraq, now, as a sane human being, was the right thing to do.”
Substantively, York and Ingraham are right. It is insane to claim the Bush administration was correct to spend trillions of dollars, kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, lose thousands of American lives, damage America’s reputation and seriously undermine the war in Afghanistan, all to conquer a country with no significant military arsenal. In fact, invading Iraq would have been a mistake even if Saddam had possessed chemical and biological stockpiles and a nascent nuclear program, none of which would have represented a threat significant enough to justify the war’s hideous cost.
But what makes the right’s attack on Jeb intriguing is that his position isn’t novel. Most of the war’s key architects have said the same thing: that even with the benefit of hindsight, the war was a good idea. George W. Bush declared that, “we’re much safer without Saddam. And I would argue that the people of Iraq have a better shot at living in a peaceful—a peaceful state.” According to Dick Cheney, invading Iraq “was the right thing to do, and if we had to do it again, we would do exactly the same thing.” Condoleezza Rice told CNN’s Piers Morgan in 2011 that, “I don’t regret that we went to war against him, because we could be sitting here today, Piers, having a discussion about the race for nuclear weapons between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Ahmadinejad’s Iran.”
So why are conservatives furious at Jeb? Because they realize that to win in 2016, they must nominate a candidate who can publicly keep his distance from Iraq. They must be the party of foreign-policy amnesia.
With the economy strengthening and public perceptions of Obamacare improving, Republican candidates have made foreign affairs central to their 2016 sales pitch. With the partial exception of Rand Paul, they all depict a world spiraling into chaos and savagery because the United States refuses to exercise its power. Ask them why Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya face civil war, why ISIS is beheading people, why the Saudi king won’t visit Washington and why Iran is wielding power across the Middle East and they’ll say it’s because the Obama administration has appeased America’s enemies and betrayed its friends. The implication, unstated but crucial, is that everything was peachy before 2009.
The more Americans think about the invasion of Iraq—and the way today’s GOP remains implicated in it—the more that narrative unravels. After all, it was the overthrow of Saddam, more than any other single action, which created the vacuum in Iraq that Iran and ISIS now fill. It was the invasion of Iraq that destroyed whatever hope America might have had of stabilizing Afghanistan. And it was the overthrow of Saddam that shifted the balance of power toward Tehran and away from Riyadh.
Obviously, events since Bush left office play a role too. If the overthrow of Saddam destabilized Iraq, the Arab Spring has destabilized much of the region. And in some ways, the Obama administration’s response to it has made things worse. In retrospect, the invasion of Libya looks like a terrible mistake. And it’s conceivable, though hardly certain, that had the Obama administration armed nationalist anti-Assad rebels early on, and forced the Iraqi government to accept a significant U.S.-troop presence after 2011, ISIS might not have gained the territory it enjoys today.
But even if you judge Obama’s Middle East policies harshly, it’s hard to see Republicans as the remedy once you realize that virtually the entire GOP foreign-policy class cheered an invasion that makes Obama’s mistakes look trivial by comparison. For the Republican foreign-policy argument to work today, voters must blame America’s Middle East problems largely on Obama, and see in his potential GOP successor the promise of a fresh start. That’s easier for Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, who can distance themselves from the Bush administration and the Iraq War. It’s harder for Jeb. And the right’s fury at his Iraq answer stems, in part, from the fear that if he wins the nomination, Republicans won’t be able to pretend that America’s overseas problems began in 2009.
Republicans want the late-Obama years to be the political equivalent of the Carter era, when America suffered foreign-policy humiliations that helped Ronald Reagan win the presidency promising to restore American honor and American might. In reality, the tribulations of the Carter years owed a lot to the aftershocks of Vietnam, which damaged America’s global image, distorted its economy, and harmed national morale. But Reagan—who had spent most of the war as governor of California—did not have to answer for Vietnam. That’s what Republicans want again today: a hawk untainted by the disastrous hawkishness of the past, a candidate who accepts the axioms that underpinned the Iraq War without having to answer for it. Jeb Bush, they increasingly realize, isn’t it.