Dealing with a question that tripped up Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich says that the U.S. never should have gone to Iraq, knowing what we know now.

“There’s a lot of people who lost limbs and lives over there, OK?” the governor told The Dispatch yesterday. “But if the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no.”

Why? “I wouldn’t have seen it as vital to national interests.”

***

Republican donors were aghast at [Bush’s] garbled response and what they saw as his clumsy attempt at cleaning up a critical question that could make or break Jeb in 2016, a year when Republicans say foreign policy could dominate the election. Some hoped the incident would be a one-time thing, forgotten with a year and a half to go in the campaign.

That may be wishful thinking. Those who know Bush well ascribed a deeper meaning to his mishandling or mishearing of the Fox News question: He deeply dislikes talking about his brother, and questions about W seem to elicit psychological stutters from an otherwise voluble and insightful speaker. Some also attributed the slip-up to poor planning or exhaustion from Bush, a micromanager who sometimes takes on too much and thinks he can explain his way out of anything by simply winging it…

“It’s true we want to raise $100 million by the end of the month,” one Bush donor told Politico Magazine, refusing to speak on record for fear of appearing disloyal. “But if he doesn’t give a clear answer about something so simple and figure out how to deal with the issue of his brother, we’re going to have to spend every penny of that cleaning up his mess.”…

“The difference between the 47 percent remarks and what Jeb did is Jeb knew he was being recorded. He knew—or should have known—that this specific question was being asked, and he botched it,” said the Republican supporter. “It’s not dissimilar to his response in 1994 when he was asked what he would do for black people and he said ‘probably nothing.’ It was a sign that he can be too blunt, too testy and too arrogant.”

***

[W]hat is even more remarkable to me, at least, is that you now have mainstream Republican candidates like Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Ted Cruz (who worked for Dubya) — not to mention Sen. Rand Paul and Dr. Ben Carson — publicly criticizing the invasion.

A few years ago, this would have branded them apostates. Now, it appears to be the consensus opinion (or, at least, not a minority one)…

Some of this could simply be that elections are about contrast, and if you’re a conservative looking to carve out a niche, disagreeing with Jeb is a pretty good idea. In this regard, Jeb’s inability to effectively answer this question might have actually impacted the stated policy positions of the GOP field — or, at least, sped up the process whereby Republicans were “coming out” as opposing the Iraq war (or, at least, with the caveat of knowing what we know now).

In any event, there appears to have been a permission structure that was granted, whereby it’s now safer to be against the war than for it. And this seems like an important thing that has been mostly lost in the mix.

***

There are more interesting questions, though, than the hypotheticals being asked of Bush, Cruz, Christie, and the other top-tier GOP candidates, none of whom were in Congress or in positions of influence on national security during the 2003 invasion. But the leading Democrat in the 2016 presidential race was a powerful and influential figure on national security and foreign policy from the 2003 invasion through the 2011 withdrawal of troops. Doesn’t Hillary Clinton have some Iraq questions to answer?

“Knowing what we know now, would you have supported and authorized the surge in 2007?” seems like a relevant question for Hillary Clinton, who was a member of the Senate Armed Services committee when President Bush authorized the troop surge of 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. She opposed it from the beginning, voted for a funding bill to begin troop withdrawal, and expressed strong, almost hostile, skepticism of the reports from multi-national security force commander General David Petraeus that the surge was seeing remarkable success. From a political view, this was more than understandable; Clinton was running for the presidential nomination in a party that was deeply against the Iraq war, opposed to President Bush’s efforts to improve the war effort, and eager to get the U.S. out of Iraq. Furthermore, the surge and the war as a whole was deeply unpopular throughout the country at the time. Opposing the surge was a no-brainer for Clinton, and as Defense Secretary Robert Gates later revealed in his memoir, Clinton made it clear her position was made primarily for politically reasons…

Here’s another relevant Iraq question for Clinton: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011?”

The withdrawal was a top priority of the Obama administration, in which Clinton served as secretary of state. This even as the security situation in Iraq began deteriorating around 2010 as al Qaeda and related groups began popping up again, staging attacks and killing civilians. President Obama proceded with the withdrawal plans anyway. If Clinton had reservations about the policy then, she didn’t say so publicly. Just before the withdrawal of combat troops in 2011, in fact, Clinton said President Obama “demonstrated great leadership” in following through on the redeployment and assured Americans that the U.S. would still have an appropriate diplomatic presence in Iraq.

***

When a policy fails, or the public turns against it, admitting that you wouldn’t vote for it doesn’t exactly make you Bonhoeffer. If you or I knew what we know now, then we’d be (almost) perfect. And apologies are not a exemption from accountability. The problem with Hillary Clinton’s position is that none of us ever “know what we know now” when we make decisions.  Her job, then, was to challenge the executive branch and remain duly skeptical of its case—which she was not.

But even if we suspend our disbelief and believe her initial vote wasn’t driven by political expediency (remember, voters supported an invasion in big numbers) or that her so-called apology wasn’t driven by political expediency (by that time she switched, a big majority of Democrats believed Iraq was a mistake), how does a voter know the next time Hillary is faced with one of those hard choices, she won’t make another mistake? The Iraq War vote was the most consequential the former New York senator would ever take and, by her own admission, she failed. Isn’t that the way voters judge candidates who run on their experience and wisdom? Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone has to be president.

And Hillary wasn’t just fooled by faulty or misleading intelligence, or led astray by a dishonest administration. In her floor speech defending the vote to invade, she made a passionate case for intervention little different from the one the administration was making for the long term prospects of teh region.

***

First, we did rid the world of Saddam. That is no small thing. He was a menace. We forget now just how much of one he was, but he was a menace indeed. He could have done great damage had he stayed in power.

Second, he still did have traces of weapons of mass murder (WMM — a better term than WMD). And he had maintained the capability to rapidly rebuild his stocks. The sanctions regime, undermined by a massive oil-for-food scandal, was eroding. Europe was, as is its wont, being Europe, meaning feckless and corrupt. Saddam was about to outlast its will. Furthermore, there is some reason to believe he had even more WMMs, and that he spirited them to Syria, as Israeli intelligence suggested at the time. If that is so, then the whole WMM subject takes on a different light, one that makes the military eviction of Saddam look far better.

Third, the Iraqi people welcomed representative government with enthusiasm and courage. Their first and second post-Saddam elections — the voting process, not the results — were inspirational. And they catalyzed a series of similar movements elsewhere — the Orange Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, etc. — which provided hope to millions…

Of course, we can play the “what if” game forever. But conservatives should stop acting as if the major foreign-policy/defense initiative that most of us supported at the time was an utter failure. In fact, it was a mixed bag — but some of the items in the bag that were good were very good indeed.

***

The search for a Republican hopeful who would actually defend the Iraq War seemed hopeless. Enter John Bolton. The former UN Ambassador, who will announce his 2016 plans tomorrow, told Bloomberg News that Bush had manhandled a question that was asked glibly in the first place.

“Absolutely we still should have overthrown Saddam,” said Bolton. “The questions, the way they’re asked, the way some are answered, have the intellectual sharpness of a bowl of oatmeal. It’s ridiculous: Crimean War, yes or no? War of the Spanish Succession, yes or no. I understand a lot of this is politics, but I don’t really care about that. The key is understanding what works and what doesn’t, and on radio or on TV it’s very hard to have that a conversation.”

Bolton had a l’esprit de l’escalier sort of answer for Bush, or for anyone else stumbling over the question. It also happened to be the answer he would give. “The idea that the decision to intervene Saddam led to the current situation in Middle East is inherently flawed,” he said. “American forces were in Iraq a little over nine years. The use of force to remove Saddam took less than three weeks. Now, after that, a lot of mistakes were made. Those mistakes did not follow naturally because of the initial decision to invade. A better question might be: Did you favor Obama backing Nouri al-Maliki over Ayad Allawi in 2010? Did you favor, as he favored, pulling all the troops out? There’s never been a period in anybody’s life where they make one decision and everything else for the decision can be blamed on that. One thing Jeb Bush should have said is that Obama can blame George W. Bush for a lot of things, but he can’t blame him for decisions made after January 20, 2009.”

***

To me, this feels like a window into Bush as a candidate and, perhaps, as a president.

First, it suggests he’s not ready for the grind of a modern campaign. How can any presidential candidate—much less a Republican named Bush—not be prepared to explain exactly what went wrong in Iraq and how the lessons would be applied to his or her presidency?

Second, it suggests he’s not the kind of leader who learns from past mistakes. That’s a dangerous thing, because these were unforced errors that the next president must guard against. Invasion bias. Bad intelligence. Cherry-picked evidence. False and distorted claims from behind the presidential seal, the shallow mythologies of petal-strewing masses and postwar planning.

Despite his success as governor, despite the hard-earned experience and decency of his family, voters will ask whether this Bush is ripe for leadership in a world more complex than the one his brother inherited on September 11, 2001.

***

It would be very difficult for Bush to say that in retrospect he would not have ordered the invasion that his brother ordered. That would come very close to saying the war was a mistake, one that involved the deaths of 4,490 U.S. servicemen and women and the wounding of more than 30,000 others. Calling the war a mistake is a very, very difficult proposition to accept.

But that is the view of a majority of the voting public. For years now, Gallup has asked this question: “In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not?” In Gallup’s most recent asking, in June 2014, 57 percent said yes, the Iraq war was a mistake, while 39 percent said it wasn’t. The “mistake” number has been over 50 percent for years.

George W. Bush has publicly grappled with the consequences of his order to go to war. But he has never, and likely will never, said the war was a mistake or the wrong thing to do, or that he would not have ordered the invasion knowing what he knows today…

The war has had a hard legacy. Jeb Bush didn’t start it. But voters, especially the great majority who disapproved of the job George W. Bush was doing in his final White House years, legitimately want to know how a President Jeb Bush will be a different president from his brother. That includes answering the Iraq question — over and over.

***

This type of candidate is like Mitt Romney: His appeal is threefold.

1. He’s done all his homework and is buttoned-up and ready to get to work and will not overly embarrass you.

2. He has more money than God.

3. Everyone else is supporting him so get on the bandwagon already.

The problem here is that Jeb has apparently given no thought to a very obvious question — thus disproving Reason One for supporting him at all (in a lukewarm, might-as-well fashion).

And when Reason One evaporates, so too will Reasons Two and Three.

***

That is why we’ve got to turn the page here. We can not stay here relitigating the Bush years again. You have to have someone who says I’m a Republican, but I’m not stupid. I’m a conservative and I learn from the past and I improve myself, I don’t bring in the same people who made the same stupid decisions in the 2000s, to get us intro the next part of the 21st Centruy. Come on. We can learn.

***

Via RCP.