Let the Great Debate Over the Iraq War Begin — Again

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush waves to the crowd while walking past a portrait of former President Ronald Reagan after speaking at the RedState Gathering Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in Atlanta.

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Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush waves to the crowd while walking past a portrait of former President Ronald Reagan after speaking at the RedState Gathering Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in Atlanta.

Forget the primary — it’s gloves off for Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, already beginning to slug it out over who lost Iraq.

There are none among the 22 presidential hopefuls in the 2016 field for whom Iraq is more fraught than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Now Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, and Bush, one of the leading Republican candidates, are both striving to frame a debate rekindled by the rise of the Islamic State.

On Tuesday night, after weeks of exchanging increasingly direct blows with Clinton, Bush took the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to offer “a vision for confronting and defeating radical Islamic terrorism,” as his campaign described it.

But first, Bush suggested that the Iraq War might have been won after his brother, George W., ordered the 2007 surge, had not President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton squandered its gains.

“That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well,” Bush said. “And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.”

Just days ago, Clinton responded to months of Republican assaults on her foreign-policy record and attempts to tie her to recent crises and anxiety about the Islamic State.

“We can’t go back to cowboy diplomacy and reckless war-mongering,” she said in a speech on Jeb’s home turf in Florida, not mentioning him by name but clearly alluding to his brother’s brand of foreign policy. “We can’t go back to a go-it-alone foreign policy that views American boots on the ground as a first choice rather than as a last resort. We have paid too high a price.”

That speech, on Cuba, opened up a new chapter in Clinton’s campaign. Previously, she had kept some distance from her national security experience. As Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., put it in the first GOP presidential debate last week: “If this election is a resumé competition, then Hillary Clinton’s gonna be the next president.”

But in the wake of the Iran deal and a general GOP focus on national security, her campaign seems to have calculated that now is the time to seize control of the narrative, and offer a diplomacy-first foreign policy, her slightly more hawkish version of Obama’s.

Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said this tack is nothing new. “She welcomes the opportunity to debate how to deal with ISIS and other terrorist groups,” he said in a “pre-buttal” to Bush’s speech. As Obama’s secretary of state for four years, he said, “Of course she believes that [national security] has to be a central issue in this campaign.”

Yet Bush has also emphasized other issues, trying to draw attention to his business experience and economic record as governor of Florida. He’s struggled with the inevitable questions of how he’ll handle his family’s foreign policy legacy, but continues to insist he’s “his own man.”

In May, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Bush whether he would’ve invaded Iraq as his brother had, knowing what we know now. He responded, “I would have [authorized the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody.” By reminding of Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War as a senator, he was trying to neutralize a likely Democratic line of attack.

Kelly brought it up again while moderating last week’s GOP debate. This time, Bush said, “Knowing what we know now, with faulty intelligence, and not having security be the first priority when we invaded, it was a mistake.” He added that Obama “abandoned Iraq.”

Bush hopes voters will accept the GOP interpretation of history: that the Obama administration, including Clinton, lost post-surge Iraq and allowed the Islamic State to rise. “So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the Joint Chiefs knew was necessary?” Bush asked Tuesday. And where was Clinton? “In all her record-setting travels, she stopped by Iraq exactly once.”

This glosses over a few key facts. It was President Bush who set the deadline for withdrawal in 2011, for example, and the Obama administration that tried and failed to persuade the Iraqi government to let the U.S. troops stay. Jeb is betting that American voters won’t remember it that way, especially amid the brutal immediacy of ISIS’s broadcasted beheadings.

In his pre-buttal, Sullivan said, “ISIS grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq. And where did AQI come from? It didn’t exist before the invasion.” As for Clinton’s travels: “The key issue is not how many times does a plane touch down at the airport, it’s how intensive and effective is the engagement that leads to progress.”

Bush and other Republicans have been quick to blame the “Obama-Clinton doctrine” for today’s global insecurities. As Bush put it, “Who can seriously argue that America and our friends are safer today than in 2009?”

But few have explained how they would defeat the Islamic State or defuse other threats. In advance of the speech, Bush campaign officials promised “specific prescriptions for addressing the threat of global jihad,” but they were absent, at least, from the excerpts they sent.

“Instead of simply reacting to each new move the terrorists choose to make, we will use every advantage we have – to take the offensive, to keep it, and to prevail,” Bush said at the speech, calling broadly for the U.S. to “engage with friends and allies,” “lead again,” and “begin rebuilding the armed forces of the United States.”

A winning strategy against the Islamic State, or against any threat to ourselves and our friends, depends ultimately on the military strength that underwrites American influence,” he said. “For generations, American-led alliances, American diplomacy, and American credibility deterred aggression and defended the peace. This is the way forward.”

Of the policy recommendations Bush did lay out in his speech, many did not differ dramatically from those advocated for or considered by the Obama administration. At contrast to other candidates such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., he did not explicitly call for tens of thousands of U.S. troops to be deployed against the Islamic State. 

“We must make better use of the limited forces we have by giving them a greater range of action,” he said. “We do not need, and our friends do not ask for, a major commitment of American combat forces.”

But several of his policy pronouncements would require far more significant use of U.S. military power and could make such a “major commitment” a necessity. He called for the embedding of U.S. troops with Iraqi forces toward the front lines of the fight against ISIS; arming the Kurds directly, a move explicitly opposed by the Iraqi government; and establishing “multiple safe zones” and a no-fly zone in Syria. 

Sullivan responded by echoing the Obama administration’s slam on opponents of the Iran deal: They won’t recommend alternatives, because the one they want is war.

Bush “appears to propose doing pretty much the same thing that President Obama is doing,” Sullivan said. “If that is what he wants – more American boots on the ground in combat in Iraq – he should come out and say so.”

But Sullivan also noted gaps between Clinton and Obama’s thinking on the Islamic State. “She supported more early and aggressive efforts to train the Syrian moderate opposition, and believes that could’ve contributed to greater stability in the region,” he said. “She’s glad the president is doing that now.”

And he took this veiled swipe at Bush and the rest of the Republican field: “She just thinks, from her actual experience as secretary of state, the world is more complicated than that, and requires more subtlety, sophistication and strength in leadership.”

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