Jeb Bush tiptoes into critique of his brother’s Iraq legacy

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Jeb Bush tiptoes into critique of his brother’s Iraq legacy

WASHINGTON — Jeb Bush continued his introductory tour of the American political scene Wednesday, giving his third major speech in less than a month and dealing for the first time as a likely presidential candidate with his brother’s legacy in Iraq. 

Bush, the former governor of Florida who is ramping up for an all but inevitable 2016 presidential campaign, said in Detroit two weeks ago that he would have to grapple with the challenge of his last name. And in a speech in Chicago on Wednesday, he began to do so tangibly. 

In response to a question about instability in the Middle East, Bush unilaterally steered the conversation to the matter of the Iraq War, which was overseen by his older brother, former President George W. Bush.

“Well, let’s go to Iraq,” Jeb Bush said, speaking before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure." 

Jeb Bush cited two examples of missteps in Iraq — which drove his brother’s approval rating to a historic low — which were the same two errors that George W. Bush himself admitted to in his 2010 memoir "Decision Points." 

"Using the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction was not, turns out to not be accurate,” Jeb Bush said, being sure to note, accurately, that the intelligence estimate of Iraq’s WMD capabilities was shared by many other nation’s intelligence agencies. 

He then added: "Not creating an environment of security after the successful taking out of Hussein was a mistake because Iraqis wanted security more than anything else.” This was ostensibly as much of a criticism of George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as it was of the former president himself. Rumsfeld has been faulted with not sending more troops to Iraq to deal with the post-invasion occupation. 

Bush was careful not to go beyond his older brother's assessment in his 2010 book. "Cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure of execution in the war," George W. Bush wrote in the book. "The other error was the intelligence failure on Iraq's WMD."

Jeb Bush then used dramatic terms to praise what he thought his brother got right in Iraq: the decision in 2007 to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq to tamp down an out-of-control sectarian conflict. Bush called the surge "one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done."

Bush, in a conclusion that is hotly debated, said that the surge was “hugely successful” and “created a stability” in Iraq that he said President Obama squandered when in 2011 Obama pulled all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq. Bush implied that the rise of the so-called Islamic State is due to Obama’s troop withdrawal. 

"The void has been filled because we created the void,” Bush said. 

Obama left 1,500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq to serve as “trainers” of the Iraqi military, and last fall, the president sent an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq to augment that residual force, because of the rise of the Islamic State. 

Bush also touched on his brother's democracy agenda, which became a focus of the George W. Bush administration in his second term, after the U.S. had invaded Iraq. Jeb Bush noted — without mentioning anyone by name — that past presidents have too easily equated elections with democratic government. 

"This is a problem of presidents past as well in all honesty, that we view, if you have an election, you’re a democracy," Bush said. "Chavez had an election and used it to steal freedom in Venezuela. Hamas had an election. Hezbollah competes. These groups are not supportive of democracy. They use the election process to take away freedom from people."

 In 2005, the Bush administration backed open Palestinian elections — over the objections of the Israeli government — and was surprised when Hamas, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, won a resounding electoral victory. 

"We consistently in American foreign policy think, 'Just check the box and it’s OK.' That’s not how a democracy works," Bush said. 

Bush made the comments in a speech in which he sought to separate himself from his brother and his father, even while reiterating his love and support for them. 

"Look, just for the record, one more time, I love my brother, I love my dad,” Bush said, echoing comments he made in Detroit, and showing a measure of irritation at the fact that his last name is such a political challenge. Bush said that the focus on his surname is "a great, fascinating thing in the political world for some reason."

"I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make, but I'm my own man,” Bush said. “My views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences. Each president learns from those who came before, their principles, their adjustments."

"New circumstances require new approaches,” he said.

In his Detroit speech, Bush said that his last name was an “interesting challenge” and that he could not be "just the brother of George W. and the son of my beloved dad.” He said then that he would have to establish a personal connection with voters in order to stand out as his own person. But by addressing the Iraq War in Chicago, Bush signaled that he understands how viscerally and closely connected his last name is with his brother’s most controversial legacy as president, and that it represents a huge obstacle to being regarded on his own terms.