WASHINGTON - Former Florida governor and expected presidential candidate Jeb Bush sought to end a political controversy Thursday over the Iraq war. Bush said at a town hall event in Tempe, Arizona, that faced with the decision today, he would not have launched the invasion of Iraq carried out by his brother, former President George W. Bush, in 2003.
"Knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged; I would have not gone into Iraq," Bush told the crowd.
Bush’s statement in Arizona was the latest attempt to put a controversy to rest that has dogged the former Florida governor for most of this week. Bush set off a political firestorm Monday when he was asked by anchor Megyn Kelly on Fox News about the Iraq war and the faulty intelligence used to justify it. “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” asked Kelly.
“I would have and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got,” responded Bush.
Bush later said he misheard the question and gave a different response during a town hall event in Reno, Nevada, two days later.
“What we ought to be focusing on is what are the lessons learned. There are two lessons learned on this. One is that if you are going to go to war, make sure that you have the best intelligence possible and the intelligence broke down. And, secondly, if you are going to do this, have a strategy of security and have a strategy to get out,” said Bush.
When pressed, Bush declined to answer directly what he would do today, adding it was a hypothetical question.
Rivals see opening
Bush’s varying answers on Iraq gave an opening to some of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida all said, given what they know now, they would not have launched an invasion. All three have officially announced their candidacies. Rubio spoke at a foreign policy event in New York. “If the intelligence had said Iraq does not have a weapon of mass destruction capability, I don’t believe President Bush would have authorized (it) to move forward,” said Rubio.
Analysts said that Bush hopes now to close out the controversy with his latest comments. But University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato said he was surprised by what he called the Bush stumble on Iraq this week.
“The Iraq war was going to be very controversial for Jeb Bush regardless, but he has made it much worse for himself with a gigantic gaffe. It is inevitable that his foes in the Republican Party and if he makes it to the general (election), the Democrats will be using those soundbites in which he appears to endorse his brother’s actions in Iraq when even his brother, President George W. Bush, has indicated repeatedly that he wished that he hadn’t gone into Iraq.”
Still a top contender
Still, Sabato and many other analysts see Bush as a strong contender on the Republican side, along with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell predicts staying power for Bush.
“What we can say is that there will be certain names that are likely to hang around at least until the end, and Jeb Bush is one of them, as well as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
One conservative foreign policy advocate who will not be among the Republican presidential contenders in 2016 is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. But Bolton told reporters in a conference call that he would try to ensure that the Republican contenders keep national security and foreign policy concerns front and center during the upcoming campaign.
“I am putting a marker down that I expect the Republican Party will remain the party of national security and that all of the candidates who may go forward are going to have to show that they are systematically and comprehensively addressing national security issues.”
Jeb Bush has raised millions of dollars for a possible campaign. His formal campaign announcement could come next month. Sabato said the latest controversy over Iraq will be encouraging to some of Bush’s rivals.
“It is pretty clear that Jeb Bush is not frightening anybody out of the race. There could be as many as 20 candidates and there probably will be about a dozen and it is obvious already that Jeb Bush is doing very poorly in Iowa and several of the other early states.”
The latest Fox News poll found Bush tied for the lead among Republican primary voters with 13 percent along with retired surgeon Ben Carson, who announced his campaign last week. Scott Walker came in at 11 percent followed by Mike Huckabee with ten percent, Marco Rubio at nine percent and Rand Paul at seven percent.