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Jeb Bush's still prospective race for president took a little nosedive when he bungled questions from friendly agents at Fox television about his brother's invasion of Iraq. If Fox News can foil a Republican so easily, people asked, could he be seriously considered for the party's nomination?
As everyone knows, the answer is yes. But the better and really consequential question is whether any candidate can pass the Iraq test, which is the first that every 2016 wannabe should be obliged to take and, we should hope, to pass. So far, only the far-out candidates of both parties, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, the socialist and the libertarian, have come close.
The almost certain Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, should be given no better marks than Jeb Bush, because unlike him she is not obliged to show fraternal respect for George W. Bush, who waged war against both Afghanistan and Iraq and plunged both nations and indeed the region into endless chaos. I need not even mention the cost in blood and treasure that turned Americans, including most Republicans, against the wars and President Bush.
Fox's Megyn Kelly served Bush the perfect spike. "Knowing what we know now," she asked helpfully, if he had been president in 2003 would he have ordered the invasion of Iraq? She obviously expected the ritual answer of all politicians now: no. But Jeb Bush said he certainly would have invaded "and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody."
Clinton, a senator from New York at the time, voted for the invasion but later said she made a mistake in accepting the administration's phony claims that it had clear evidence that Iraq stocked weapons of mass destruction and was getting ready to use them.
It took Bush four tries — he next muffed an assist by Fox's Sean Hannity to get him out of the jam — to finally get squarely on the side of public opinion. No, he said, the invasion was a big mistake, though he said his brother was just poorly served by the intelligence agencies, which gave him unreliable information.
But that is the crux of the question, or what ought to be the question. It is not a hypothetical one, which Jeb Bush says it is unfair to ask. The question is not "knowing what we know now" but what would you have done in the situation that existed in spring of 2003? The answers suggest how a candidate will deal with the recurring pressures to go to war in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the China Sea or wherever radical religionists, rebels or petty tyrants shake their fists at the United States.
No one in Washington in 2003 — not George W. Bush and not Sen. Hillary Clinton — thought we were going to war because Saddam Hussein might have WMDs. It was the pretext that was prepared by the CIA at the direction of the administration to provide political cover for occupying Iraq, which was the chief foreign-policy goal of the United States outlined by the Bush team of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Project for the New American Century, the 1998 blueprint for the next Republican administration. That was known in Congress and it has been abundantly documented since then.
Four days before Bush presented the case for invading Iraq in an address to Congress on Jan. 24, 2003, the National Security Council put out a call for intelligence to bolster the claim that Iraq had nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, and the confidential reports came back that the case was weak. The U.S. Army officer who led the dismantling of the WMD programs in the 1990s insisted that all the weapons had been destroyed. Saddam's defecting son-in-law told American intelligence that all had been destroyed — before he accepted Saddam's warm invitation to come home and was murdered. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was charged with going to the United Nations and making the case for the invasion, was shocked, according to his chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, when the CIA gave him the "evidence." "This is it?" Powell asked. Being the good soldier, he went ahead with the speech.
Wilkerson, who wrote the speech, regretted it. "Was the intelligence politicized in addition to being wrong at its roots? Absolutely," he said.
The Washington Post's veteran CIA reporter, Walter Pincus, wrote an article that countered all the intelligence baloney the rest of the media loyally put out. Inside the intelligence agencies, he wrote, there is little support for the weapons claims.
When Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, testified on Capitol Hill that the Iraq occupation would difficult, expensive and long-lasting, the White House sent Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, to Congress to essentially say Shinseki was an idiot. Then they removed Shinseki.
The war was being planned even on the very day before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Vice President Cheney immediately began the campaign to blame the 9/11 attacks on Saddam Hussein, and polls showed that most Americans believed it even after the administration switched to the WMD pretext, and even though Bush himself could claim that he personally never publicly blamed Saddam.
But back to Sens. Sanders and Paul, who last week were the only ones who thought they could speak the truth. Sanders voted against the war and told the rest of the Senate at the time that they all knew the weapons were a phony pretext. He wants Hillary Clinton to own up now to just not having the courage at the time to speak the truth. Paul said the invasion was simply stupid. Removing Saddam, a tyrant but a secular one, he said, obviously would tilt the balance of power in the region to Iran and make the country fertile for religious extremists that Saddam had banned. Indeed, Paul's father, the congressman, had said so at the time.
Lord, give us some truth-teller besides Bernie Sanders or Rand Paul to admire in these sweepstakes.
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