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Jeb Bush's slippery slope on Iraq

Jeb Bush's ham-handed answer to questions about the 2003 invasion of Iraq has raised another: Is he really ready for prime time as a 2016 presidential prospect?

A perplexed press is asking: What was Mr. Bush thinking? He was asked if, "knowing what we know now" — that is, that no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq — he would have authorized the invasion. He said he would have, and thereby invited the same abuse that has been heaped on his brother, the former president, for starting a war whose aftermath still haunts this country. Fellow Republican White House hopefuls are inquiring, too, obviously with malice aforethought.

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Mr. Bush then insisted he had "misinterpreted" the straightforward question. He subsequently acknowledged during a town hall meeting in Reno "that there were mistakes made, but based on the information we had, it was the right decision." Defensively, he added: "I'll give my brother credit, once that mess was created he solved the mess with the (troop) surge (in 2007) and created a much more stable Iraq."

Finally, three days after the controversy began, he backtracked, saying, "Knowing what we now know, I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq." Rather lamely, he added: "I don't go out of my way to disagree with my brother," and "I don't think it's necessary to go through every place that I disagree with him."

But obviously others will continue to ask. Before Mr. Bush's tardy clarification, yet-to-declare candidate Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey observed: "These are the questions that are extraordinarily important for the country, and I think if you're considering running for president you need to answer the question."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a declared candidate, suggested that Jeb Bush's original observation on invading Iraq "means we're going to get George Bush 3" if he is elected in 2016. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, also in the race, insisted: "Not only would I not have been in favor of it, but President Bush would not have."

In so saying, Mr. Rubio grabbed the same crutch that Jeb had seized in his first comment, that George W's invasion was based on faulty intelligence, and that his brother too now conceded "that those mistakes took place as well."

But after no weapons of mass destruction were found, President Bush in an ABC News interview argued that it didn't matter. What did matter, he said, was that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was removed. It was a clear admission that "regime change" had been the ultimate purpose of the invasion, and Jeb now too cited his removal as justification.

In Reno last week, he got himself deeper regarding the invasion aftermath in a brief exchange with a college student, Ivy Ziedrich, 19, a Democrat. She placed at George W's feet the disbanding the 30,000-man Iraqi army after Saddam Hussein's fall, leaving its weapons behind for the self-styled Islamic State to pick up. "Your brother created ISIS," she bitingly charged, asking: "Why are you spouting nationalistic rhetoric to get us involved in more wars?"

Mr. Bush replied that "when we left Iraq, security had been arranged, al-Qaida had been taken out. There was a fragile system that could have been brought up to eliminate the sectarian violence." Shifting the blame to his brother's successor without naming him, he said: "And we had an agreement that the president could have signed that would have kept 10,000 troops [there, which] could have created the stability that would have allowed for Iraq to progress. The result was the opposite occurred. Immediately, that void was filled."

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He concluded, ending the exchange: "Look, you can rewrite history all you want. But the simple fact is that we are in a much more unstable place because America pulled back." In other words, he was saying, if you want to blame anyone for the current mess, blame Barack Obama for withdrawing the U.S. combat presence from Iraq too soon.

Is this an issue Jeb Bush really wants to debate as a Republican candidate for the presidency between now and 2016? He may not have much choice now, having so mindlessly invited it himself.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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