Initially the Republicans had it all worked out. According to their new narrative on Iraq everything was hunky dory until Obama ended the surge, which gave Sunni militants a chance to form ISIS. It was a perfect story in two respects, because on the one hand it took George W. Bush’ decision to invade Iraq entirely out of the debate, and on the other it made Obama’s former Secretary of State and the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2016, Hillary Clinton, co-responsible for the emergence of ISIS. It was too good to be true, and that was exactly the problem. After GOP candidates floated this collective fantasy a couple of times Jeb Bush drew the ultimate conclusion. If everything in Iraq was going well until the ending of the surge, then his brother’s decision to invade Iraq must have been the correct one. Therefore, when asked by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly if he would have made the decision to invade Iraq ‘knowing what he knew now,’ he answered ‘yes,’ adding that Hillary Clinton would have invaded too.
Jeb’s answer immediately backfired and opened a Pandora’s box that the Republicans won’t be able to close anymore. The press and a large part of the US population remembered that Iraq had been invaded because the Bush/Cheney administration was certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, but that those weapons were never found. Jeb was also reminded that over 200,000 Iraqis died after the 2003 invasion but before the surge, and experts argued that ISIS was simply an extension of ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq,’ which had been created when the Bush/Cheney Viceroy, Paul Bremer, decided to disband Saddam’s army and sent soldiers and officers home with their weapons. Jeb was forced to paddle backwards, and he did so in three stages. First he said that he had misheard Megyn Kelly’s question, without correcting his answer, then he argued that asking the question was an insult to the American troops who had sacrificed so much in Iraq, and finally he told an interviewer that he would not have invaded.
But the damage had been done. Since Jeb’s initial answer Republican candidates have been all over the place, from Rand Paul, who considers pretty much everything the US does outside of its own territory a mistake, to Bobby Jindal, probably the dumbest of the GOP candidates who are professional politicians, who would still have invaded Iraq today and started looking for weapons of mass destruction.
Their problem is that they are all arguing within the confines of Judith Miller’s ‘theory’ that the normally reliable intelligence community had it hopelessly wrong this one time, and that Bush and Cheney had every reason to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The much more plausible option is laid out in a book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff and by people like Steve Clemons of the Atlantic, namely that Bush and Cheney cherry-picked faulty information to justify something they wanted to do anyway: invade Iraq.
And herein lays an opportunity for Hillary Clinton. She has already correctly answered the ‘if you knew what you know now’ question years ago, albeit too late to be elected in 2008, and now she has a unique opportunity to go with the truth. By insisting that Bush and Cheney simply wanted to invade Iraq, no matter what the intelligence showed, she’ll have a huge advantage over any GOP candidate, especially since it appears that the prolonged existence of ISIS will keep questions about Iraq front and center in the campaign.