Almost as surprising as Jeb Bush’s five-day stutter of an Iraq answer last week was its arena: the entire thing played out across several shows on Fox News, where Bush should have found friendly territory to re-litigate his brother’s Middle East adventurism. It even continued Sunday morning, as Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace made Marco Rubio dance with staccato questioning over his Iraq answer(s). An entire field of hawkish GOP candidates remains, and with nobody providing the answer to close the subject, Fox and its candidates may be stuck in a self-defeating loop of their own creation.
The Suddenly Unanswerable Iraq Question is a strikingly different tone from the one Fox has struck on the subject in the past year, as the network has tried almost daily to pin the rise of ISIS upon President Barack Obama. In this formulation, Bush won the surge while Obama, in Karl Rove’s words on Fox last year, “squandered the peace.” This resets the beginning of the discussion from 2002, when the Bush administration used bad intelligence to belly-flop into war, to 2007, when the surge quieted the sectarian fighting in Iraq. The withdrawal of U.S. troops, which was devised by the Bush administration but carried out by his successor in 2011, thus appears as the fatal mistake that ceded the region to a festering insurgency.
From there any 2016 GOP hopeful can play Pretend Reagan by arguing for a more aggressive foreign policy in contrast to Obama’s retreatism. It’s a narrative sleight-of-hand that seemed, for a while, as though it might snatch interventionism from the jaws of George W Bush’s poll numbers.
Perhaps something like that was what Megyn Kelly was going for when she asked Jeb Bush whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing what we know now, likely anticipating Bush had prepared a one-line answer to put the issue to rest. Bush claimed to have “misheard” the question, though he was possibly being too clever by half: knocking the discussion back to 2002 keeps Hillary Clinton’s Iraq vote in play, though she’s long since publicly regretted the vote. Perhaps something like that was what Sean Hannity was going for when he asked Bush the same question two days later. Perhaps something like that was what Wallace was going for when he asked Rubio the same question this morning and instead got an Abbott and Costello skit about Saddam Hussein.
Thus do year-long talking points crumble in a few stammering sentences. But if the hosts seemed almost taken aback by the difficulty the candidates had in answering a fairly simple question, maybe the question wasn’t the softball it appeared. ISIS comprises largely Hussein’s former officers, Baathists turned out of power by the invasion and emboldened by the void left in their former boss’s absence. With the army and bureaucracy disbanded by the U.S. post-war plan and Bush-selected former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki a sectarian leader who exacerbated rivalries in post-invasion Iraq, ISIS’ ascendancy was baked into the proverbial cake. As a college student told Bush in a comment last week that, fortunately for the candidate, was overshadowed by his own stumbles, “Your brother created ISIS.”
The placement of ISIS in a causal chain with the original invasion ruins the attempt to make Baathist-led Sunni insurgents an Obama-authored meltdown of a Bush success, in turn invoking the dangerous and unforeseen consequences of interventionism just as an ever-expanding GOP field gears up to make the case for another round of such aggression. Having returned to the tradition of tough Republicans over wimpy Democrats, the right is now committed to its surge-born revisionism. Just as the party needed to finally put the invasion in the past, Fox and Jeb Bush combined to make sure every candidate gets asked about it, over and over and over again.
[Image via screengrab]
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