More than a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the wisdom of that war still casts a shadow over the Republican candidates for president as they try to stake out a more muscular foreign policy than President Barack Obama.
Most of the GOP White House hopefuls argue that Obama over-corrected after ending the long and expensive war by pulling out American forces completely, yet are mindful that many Americans remain skeptical of large-scale U.S. combat efforts abroad.
With the U.S. back in Iraq in a more limited way to help fight Islamic State, Obama’s successor is all but sure to confront lingering fallout from the original invasion and its aftermath.
Tackling America’s difficult history in Iraq is most challenging for Jeb Bush, whose brother, former President George W. Bush, pursued the Iraq war in 2003. Bush has sought to distance himself from his brother’s foreign policy, even as he relies on many of the same advisers and describes his brother as someone he relies on for advice.
Bush appeared to get tripped up by his tightrope walk this week. Asked if he would have approved of the invasion given what is now known about the faulty intelligence that influenced his brother’s decision, he said he would have made the same decision under the same circumstances.
“Just for the news flash to the world, if they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those,” Bush said in a Fox News interview that aired Monday.
A September 2014 AP-GfK poll found that 71 percent of Americans said they think history will judge the war as a failure. Among Republicans, that assessment was even more prevalent, with 76 percent saying the war would be seen a failure.
While Bush’s place in the debate is unique given his family history, the Iraq war remains a touchstone for his Republican rivals. How a candidate views both the invasion and the subsequent handling of the conflict, including the rampant unrest in Iraq that followed Obama’s full withdrawal of American troops in 2011, is often seen as a window into their broader foreign policy philosophy.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, said going into Iraq was ultimately the wrong decision.
“If we knew then what we know now, and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” Christie said. “But we don’t get to replay history.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who favors a smaller U.S. military footprint in the world, said last month that it “was a mistake” to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended the war earlier this year, saying “the world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”
Democrats had their reckoning with the Iraq war during the 2008 presidential election. Obama’s early opposition to the war helped him distinguish himself from Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.
Clinton, who voted to authorize the war as a senator, has since said that based on the revised intelligence, she would not have voted for the war.