Jeb Bush has taken pains to state, ”I am my own man,” on foreign policy, but now he says he would’ve authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq, just like his brother, former President George W. Bush—and just like then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. He’s calculating that voters care less about how the Iraq War started and more about how it ended—or didn’t.
For the public, the national security debate has shifted in the last year, so that the Iraq War is no longer the political litmus test it was in 2004 or 2008. Instead, the debate now focuses on the chaotic state of the Middle East today and what the United States can and should do about it.
Most of the Republican field for the 2016 election is leveraging the rise of the Islamic State to appear stronger on defense than Democrats. They blame the Obama administration for “losing” Iraq by withdrawing from the country in 2011, which they claim gave rise to the terrorist group. By backing his brother on the 2003 invasion, Bush is betting the American public is ready to move on, but so far, he has not presented his vision for what the United States should do next.
“I would have [authorized the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in an interview airing Monday night. He acknowledged faulty intelligence that led to the invasion, followed by security failures that contributed to the current chaos in Iraq, but added, “By the way, guess who thinks that those mistakes took place as well? George W. Bush. “¦ Yes, I mean, so just for the news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”
In his first major foreign policy address as a likely presidential candidate, in February, Bush struggled to differentiate himself from his brother and GOP competitors on national security. Now, he has begun to invoke his brother as a strong-on-defense asset. Jeb told donors last week that his brother also is his go-to adviser on U.S.-Israel relations, saying, “If you want to know who I listen to for advice, it’s him.”
Though Bush has not yet formally announced, his adopted strategy is a read of the shifting political tides favoring U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and discontent with President Barack Obama’s broader national security strategy. While Obama has been adamant that he will not put American combat boots back on the ground in Iraq—a stance the GOP has exploited as exhibiting a “weakness” on defense—several polls indicate that a growing majority of Americans now support sending American troops to fight the Islamic State.
By reminding voters that Clinton shares the burden of the Iraq War by voting for the invasion as a senator in 2002, Bush is inviting renewed attacks on her from the Left, re-exposing that divide among Democrats and chipping away at her status as the inevitable nominee.
But the move also opens Bush up to vulnerability on his right. Without a brother—or vote—to defend, other GOP candidates have a stronger claim on the hindsight bias that they would’ve taken a smarter route. At contrast with the former Florida governor, the trio of freshman Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas are positioning themselves as a new generation of national security leaders, unencumbered by the political baggage of Iraq and going head to head with Obama over his “flailing” foreign policy every day in Washington. But saying the past is past is not the same as presenting differentiating ideas for the future of the Middle East—and how much U.S. intervention they truly would support.
It’s unclear whether Bush’s rivals will capitalize on the opening, or whether it will matter much by November 2016. For the next year, the challenge will be about much more than pitching interventionism to show strength on defense. Anxiety over the Islamic State and a full slate of foreign policy crises across the globe are spurring questions not about what happened then, but what’s next. More than a dozen years after the invasion of Iraq, it’s unclear that anyone has any better answers.