As Jeb Bush was tying himself into a pretzel over the Iraq War last week, a curious silence emanated from the usual cadre of Iraq War architects, boosters, and hangers-on.
The willingness of Bush’s Republican primary rivals to criticize him for initially saying he supported the war — even knowing what is known now — was itself remarkable and suggests a watershed moment in the GOP’s reckoning with disaster of the Iraq War. But also notable was the dog that didn’t bark.
TPM reached out to a number of key figures in the run-up to the Iraq War, most of whom would not comment. We did find some Iraq War supporters who would talk, but rather than affirmatively defending the decision to go to war, they dismissed the line of questioning Jeb Bush faced as “unfair” or attributed the Iraq War failures to big government “throwing money” at the problem.
Then there was James Woolsey, the former CIA director and Iraq War advocate. He said what would have changed his support for the invasion was not 20/20 vision about WMDs or the difficulty of the occupation, but seeing how Barack Obama has handled the war.
“‘I should have said in ’03, ‘No, I don’t want us to go to war under Barack Obama,” Woolsey said.
The upshot is that the right-wing sound machine which for more than a decade came loudly to the defense of the war and savaged its critics was for the first time almost subdued in its response.
Among the prominent Iraq War figures TPM contacted: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan, Douglas J. Feith, Bill Kristol, Scooter Libby, Peter Feaver, Bruce Jackson, and Stephen Cambone. They all either declined to comment or did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.
“They’re in their foxholes and they don’t want to say things, because they’re all sort of positioning to engage these candidates, be in the inner circle for these candidates,” said Shawn Brimley, executive vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security who previously served on Obama’s National Security Council staff.
It was not too long ago, however, that many of the voices that initially cheered the Bush administration towards war were still loudly defending the decision.
Kristol, a neoconservative commentator who now is the editor of The Weekly Standard, told CNN last June he would not apologize for supporting the war, as it was the “right thing to do and necessary and just thing to do.” Likewise, Rumsfeld said in 2013 it would have been “immoral” not to invade Iraq. Former Vice President Dick Cheney also said last summer he had no regrets when asked about the decision.
Jeb Bush has tapped a number of members of his brother’s administration to advise him on foreign policy, including Wolfowitz, making Jeb’s grappling with the issue particularly awkward.
Republicans are “finally having the reckoning that is long overdue on the issue of Iraq,” according to Brimley.
“The silver lining for the Republicans is that it’s good that this reckoning is happening now, potentially very early in the primary,” Brimley said.
Still, a few Iraq defenders have emerged from the woodwork in recent days. John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Bush, said unequivocally that the decision to invade Iraq was the correct one.
Other hawks have danced around the intel heralded at the time — that Iraq was in possession of WMDs. They argue that was to blame.
“I think that most of the Republicans would say no — that the proximate cause of the invasion was the intel about WMDs. And had that intel not been there, we would’ve tried to get the no-fly zone going and the sanctions going,” Elliott Abrams, a former national security adviser in the Bush administration, told Bloomberg.
Michael Rubin, a Pentagon official during the Bush years, also said in an email to TPM that President Bush’s decision was justified by the intelligence available to him at the time. He added, “Reconstruction, redevelopment, and lengthy occupation both in Afghanistan and Iraq were mistakes. We have little to show for our efforts in either. The Washington model of throwing money at problems doesn’t work in the Middle East.”
Jim Hanson, executive vice president at the Center for Security Policy — which is led by Frank Gaffney, one of the most vocal Iraq War advocates — said judging a position on the Iraq War by what is known now is “unfair” and a “ complete cop out.”
“You don’t get to make decisions in hindsight. You take the best available intelligence and you make the best decision you can at that point in time,” he said. “Hindsight is not a part of the game, so I think it’s an unfair question to ask.”
Richard Perle, another prominent figure from the pre-invasion days, defended the 2003 decision in an interview with Huffington Post last week: “The evidence is strong enough and the cost of standing down would be not delaying for a week or two, but essentially abandoning the capacity.”
But some of the Iraq War’s biggest cheerleaders just wanted to move away from the argument entirely.
“Our collective intellectual efforts would be much better employed trying to understand how to manage the wars and threats we face now — none of which are going well — than continuing to rehash an argument we’ve been having for more than a decade,” Fred Kagan, once a promoter of the Iraq War who is now a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told TPM in an email.
Prominent Iraq War critics were not surprised.
“Clearly it was one of the largest blunders the U.S. has ever made in its foreign policy history,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA counterintelligence official. “We still have much cognitive dissonance among those who promoted the war who have had a hard time recognizing that. If we are getting silence from neocons, it’s because they don’t have anything plausible to say in defense of the decision.”
Last Monday, Bush told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that, even knowing what is known now, he supported his brother’s decision to invade Iraq and his Republican rivals were quick to pounce. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) lined up against Bush, arguing that at least in retrospect, the decision to intervene in Iraq was a mistake.
The issue of Iraq is unlikely to go away for Republicans.
“By virtue of who Secretary Clinton is — and she is the presumptive nominee, I would assume, on the Democratic side — they’re going to have to run at her on national security and foreign policy,” Brimley said. “Does being hawkish on foreign policy mean having to embrace all of the hawkish elements of the George W. Bush- kind of legacy? They’re struggling with this right now.”
Tellingly, Rubio — who counts Abrams and former Dick Cheney aide Eric Edelman among his advisors — has flipped again on the issue, arguing Sunday to Fox News’ Chris Wallace that “the world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”
When pressed whether the decision was a mistake knowing Hussein didn’t have WMDs, Rubio still wouldn’t say that President Bush made the wrong decision. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who is mulling a presidential run, also said Saturday that Bush made the correct decision given what was known then. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is also expected to announce his White House candidacy next month, conceded Monday, “If I [knew] then what I know now, a land invasion may not have been the right answer,” but said the war was not a mistake and blamed Obama for withdrawing troops in 2011.
“We have somewhat similar debate going on right now with Iran — the fact that having a nuclear program doesn’t by itself constitute a case to do any one thing — to go to war, to negotiate or whatever,” Pillar said. “You have to argue the pros and cons.”
According to Pillar, the broader back-and-forth proves that we “are still stuck in the framework that the war promoters in the Bush administration gave us,” in that perceived threat alone justifies an invasion.