Knowing what we know now,” would you have invaded Iraq? Jeb Bush stumbled over this question. His answer focused on whether Saddam Hussein's regime had active programs for weapons of mass destruction. But the mistakes relating to WMDs are neither the only, nor the most currently relevant, of the Bush (and Obama) Iraq War failures. The errors in estimating the costs of the war, the incompetent planning for the occupation, and the failure to understand the sheer length of the commitment are at least as important in understanding questions of when, if, and how, the U.S. should get into wars.
The narrow Republican (and media) focus on whether Iraq had WMD programs obscures whether the Republican candidates have learned real lessons from Iraq, and it makes it more difficult for those candidates to launch an effective critique of the Obama administration. The Bush administration expected the aftermath of the Iraq War to be quick and cheap. They had no plan for providing security and hoped that civil society would knit itself back together. As a result, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, gained primacy in many Iraqi Sunni areas while Iran-backed militias gained power in many Shia areas.
In his Second Inaugural Address, George W. Bush set forth the goal of “ending tyranny in the world.” But what happens when that tyranny is replaced with a power vacuum? Bush talked about what may happen “when the soul of a nation finally speaks,” but neighboring countries and armed, well-organized minorities can have outsized voices in the absence of strong institutions and established democratic norms. Bush gave what was, in many ways, a noble speech, but it was lacking in its concern for the order and public safety that make political freedom possible and bearable.
One thing we can know now is that the destruction of even an evil regime can create opportunities for new evils to arise, and that dealing with those evils is often more costly than the act of destroying the evil regime. That does not necessarily mean that the destruction of the regime is not worth it. The regime might be so dangerous that its destruction is necessary despite the immediate costs of its destruction and the drawn-out costs of preventing the former regime's territory from becoming a base for transnational terrorist organizations. But the latter costs (or rather the risks of such costs) are real. Whether it was Bush in Iraq or Obama in Libya, trusting in “the soul of a nation” when terrorist-affiliated groups run freely risks disaster.
The irony is that President Obama, who famously opposed the Iraq War, did not heed the lessons of Iraq. He pulled the remaining American troops out of Iraq and, like his immediate predecessor, seems to have assumed that he could get out quickly and cheaply. Obama claimed that American withdrawal left behind “a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq.”
But Obama left behind a fragile Iraq that was vulnerable to the very worst outside influences. With the decline of American involvement and influence, Iran's role increased and pushed Iraq's government to adopt sectarian policies that alienated the minority Sunni. Where Bush trusted the “soul of a nation,” Obama seems to have trusted Iran's terrorist-sponsoring regime. The result was that ISIS was able to strengthen and gain control of many of Iraq's Sunni areas.
Jeb Bush and other Republicans blame Obama for throwing away the gains of the surge. They like to tell the story of how the surge and the Petraeus strategy were able to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, weaken the hold of the Shia militias, establish somewhat effective Iraqi security forces, and bring about a modicum of political reconciliation among Iraq’s factions. It is a good story, but it is not good enough to be convincing to the public. The public does not worry that Republicans (at least those Republicans not associated with the Ron and Rand Pauls of the world) are insufficiently determined. They worry (with good reason) that Republicans are heedless of the costs and length of military commitments. Obama's foreign policy is unpopular, but, facing a constrained choice, the median voter would probably prefer Obama's foreign policy mistakes to those of the second President Bush.
It is up to Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates to demonstrate that they have learned something from a war that was so recklessly planned by one president and so recklessly ended by another. Perhaps they can explain how what they know now will allow them to fight wars more effectively (when they have to fight wars), make policy with fewer illusions, and avoid the mistakes common to our most recent presidents.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.