Jeb Bush has drawn derision from all quarters of the political world this week for his bumbling response to questions about the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but some of the sharpest criticism is now coming from his own brother's orbit.
In interviews with more than half a dozen Republican foreign policy hands and veterans of the George W. Bush administration, the reaction to Jeb's dithering on Iraq ranged from disappointment to disbelief.
"No, it was not handled well by Gov. Bush... I don't know why he said what he did," said Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary for Bush 43 at the beginning of the war.
"Making a basic misstep like that with a question that was perfectly, 100% predictable is frankly astonishing," said Randy Scheunemann, a former adviser to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. "It does not bode well for his candidacy."
Bush, who is expected to announce his bid for the Republican presidential nomination this summer, crash-landed in this campaign quagmire Sunday when he was asked by Fox News host Megyn Kelly, "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?" He surprised many observers when he confidently responded in the affirmative, prompting an onslaught of frenzied media coverage and bipartisan criticism. After the interview aired Monday, he tried to backpedal on Sean Hannity's radio show, explaining that he had "interpreted the question wrong" — but when the conservative host gave him a chance to clarify his position, Bush demurred: "I don't know what that decision would have been. That's a hypothetical."
While some of his Republican rivals made hay out of his vacillating, Bush continued to provide varied dodges. It took him until Thursday afternoon before he finally relented, testily telling a group of voters in Arizona, "If we're all supposed to answer hypothetical questions: Knowing what we now know, what would you have done? I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq."
He hastened to add that he believed the world was safer without Saddam Hussein, and eventually concluded, "We've answered the question now."
The answer at which Bush eventually arrived aligns with popular opinion in the United States, where an Associated Press poll last year found that 71% of Americans — and 76% of Republicans — believed the Iraq war would be judged a failure by history.
But Bush's defense of the war left much to be desired among the neoconservative elites who served as architects and advocates for the U.S. mission in Iraq — and remain ideologically invested in the muscular foreign policy that undergirded it. While the 2016 Republican field is almost uniformly hawkish, few of the party's would-be standard-bearers feel compelled to defend all aspects of an unpopular war launched before most of them were even old enough to Constitutionally run for president. Every GOP contender asked this week said that with the benefit of hindsight, they wouldn't have sent troops into Iraq.
Many of the party's old-guard Iraq hawks hoped Bush would be the exception. They wanted to see him go to bat for his brother's legacy in the region — reminding the electorate that, botched intel aside, there were good reasons to topple the Hussein regime and seek democratic change in the country. And more to the point, many believe the case should be made on the campaign trail that President Obama made a grave mistake in pulling troops out of Iraq.
"As a political messaging matter, Gov. Bush could easily say to Obama, 'The surge was working. You were handed a three-run lead at the bottom of the ninth, all you had to do was come in and close, and you blew the game," said Scheunemann.
But while Bush has, in fact, touched on these arguments, they have been largely lost amid the tangle of confused quotes, hasty walk-backs, and constant revisions that has characterized Bush's recent Iraq rhetoric. "It shows how rusty he is as a candidate," said Scheunemann. "And that whoever's advising him isn't giving him very good advice."
That sentiment was echoed by a former Bush 43 State Department appointee, who said Jeb should be talking about the ink-stained fingers of first-time Iraqi voters and the success of the troop surge late in his brother's presidency. "The answers aren't hard for Jeb," he said. "People may not all agree with them, but they're pretty obvious."
Ideology aside, several Republicans in the former president's orbit are simply bewildered that Jeb seemed so caught off-guard by such a predictable question as Kelly's. As David Frum, a former White House speechwriter for Bush 43, wrote in Politico, "Sooner or later the question had to be asked. Yet, somehow Jeb Bush failed to be prepared for it." How is it possible that he didn't already have well-rehearsed talking points to address what was arguably the most polarizing — and defining — chapter of his brother's presidency?
"That's the very first thing that should have come up when Jeb decided to run: How are we doing to deal with the Iraq issue?" said a former foreign policy adviser to Bush 43. "The fact that he's floundering on it now is crazy."
"You would think the communications people around him would have him a little more prepped," said Paul McKellips, who served as a public affairs specialist in Iraq for the state department. "I mean, this is probably his fifth re-qualification of the week."
McKellips tentatively chalked up Bush's wobbly rhetoric to the former governor's lack of foreign policy experience — but he wasn't entirely convinced. "We all get enough of the news to form our own opinions," he said. "You would think if you were the caliber of Gov. Bush, you would be ready to go with those quotes."
One retired senior military officer who worked on communications in Baghdad suggested Bush, who is known to be a quick study, should spend time boning up on Iraq. "He wasn't involved in the war effort, really," he said. "I think it's going to be incumbent upon him to become as smart as he can on the issues."
Still, Fleischer predicted Jeb's clumsy game of rhetorical hopscotch would eventually be forgotten as he defines himself independently of the other two Oval Office alumni in his family. During George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, Fleischer recalled, "reporters always tried to shoe-horn everything into being about his father... it was a constant fly we had to swat at." He said one problem with Jeb's struggle to answer the Iraq question this week was that he unwittingly prolonged a story about his brother, and the past — rather than talking about himself, and the future.
"The press wants to write the easy story: Who is he? Is he his brother, or is he his dad?" said Fleischer. "And because of the manner in which he answered the question, this issue has arisen. So, it's his week in the barrel. But in terms of flare-ups in the campaign, I think this is a level-three flare-up out of 10."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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