Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday he would not have invaded Iraq, as his brother did more than a decade ago, had he been president at the time and had he known then what he knows now.
But he remains convinced that the United States needs to “re-engage,” in the country, with troops, “and do it in a more forceful way.”
Speaking to a business group here, Bush conceded that he stumbled in recent interviews when he was asked the hypothetical question, saying at one point he would have gone to war and at another that he was not sure. Bush, who is weighing a formal presidential bid, clearly wants to put the flap behind him.
“I would not have engaged, I would not have gone into Iraq,” he said flatly.
So what took so long to get a straight answer?
“The reason why I was reluctant to say what I’m going to say now is that, as governor of Florida, I easily called over 100 family members who lost a loved one in service to our great country,” Bush explained.
“And it’s very hard for me to say that their lives were lost in vain,” Bush continued. “In fact, they weren’t.”
He said the families that lost loved ones have gone through a lot.
“Their sacrifice is worth honoring, not depreciating,” Bush said.
But Bush also was careful to say that does not mean the war started by his brother was ultimately not worthwhile, saying the world is “significantly safer” because Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted. And he said the troop surge has created greater stability in the country.
With the former Florida governor seeking to become the third Bush in the White House, comparisons to his father George H. Bush and, more recently, his brother, George W. Bush, are inevitable.
“I don’t go out of my way to disagree with my brother,” he said. “I am loyal to him.”
But he said that, as it relates to the Iraq war, “I hope it was clear where I stood.” But he clearly did not want to have to be answering questions comparing him with his brother.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to go through every place where I disagree with him,” Bush said. And he said that he has not talked with his brother about the issue.
Bush also said that, whatever the decisions his brother made about starting the war in 2003, the situation had improved by the end of George’s W.’s second term.
“It was fragile, but it was stable,” he said.
“It was because of the heroic efforts of a lot of people,” Bush explained. “And relitigating this, and going through hypotheticals, I think does no good for them.”
And what of the way forward in Iraq?
“I think we need to re-engage, and do it in a more forceful way,” he said, beyond the few thousand troops the Obama administration has sent back into that country since the 2011 withdrawal.
“The president is very reluctant, for whatever reason, to make a clear commitment that we should have kept 5,000, 10,000 troops there,” Bush said. And he said that, to the extent U.S. troops are involved there now, “there’s been some success.”
But his views on the United States getting involved militarily around the world are not limited to Iraq.
“We see, sadly, when we lead from behind, or we don’t lead at all, or we’re part of the ‘community of nations,’ this new language that accepts American not exceptionalism but American mediocrity, we see what happens,” Bush said.
“We see Islamic terrorism all over, now with the threat of home-grown terrorism,” he said, referencing the two men from Phoenix who traveled to Garland, Texas in a bid to kill those drawing satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. “And many more may come.”
Recent polls have shown that despite misgivings about going to war in Iraq, there is some sentiment for increasing U.S. presence there, especially with the threat of ISIS. But Bush said his views are based on his belief that the ability of American businesses to thrive depends on U.S. taking a more active role overseas.
“But for the United States, who?” he asked. “Who’s going to support Israel? Who’s going to support the Persian Gulf states? Who’s going to support the Baltics? Who’s going to be there to make sure we lessen the chance for having our men and women in harm’s way?”
And Bush said that’s more than a duty.
“It’s in our economic interest to do so as well,” he said.
Bush’s comments on international involvement are in direct contrast with presidential hopeful Rand Paul who had his own event earlier this week, also in Tempe. The Kentucky senator said those who are proponents of international involvement in the name of national security clearly do not understand what that has produced.
“They supported the war in Libya, they supported sending arms to the Islamic rebels in Syria,” he said.
“They have supported every one of these wars that’s come down and we’ve gotten the wrong outcome,” Paul continued. “We’re less safe, there are more jihadists, more radical Islam and more problems because we toppled secular governments and we get radical religious governments.”