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Jeb Bush learned the wrong lessons from the Iraq War

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jeb Bush says he misheard Megyn Kelly's question about invading Iraq, and I believe him. If you read the transcript, there's really no other explanation for what Bush says.

Kelly asks, "Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?" Bush answers: "I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got."

Bush goes on to say, "In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty."

It's clear reading this that Bush thought he was answering a different question than the one asked. He said that working off the intelligence available then, he would have invaded Iraq. So let's agree: Bush misunderstood the question.

But the answer to the question he thought he was asked is, in some ways, more disturbing than the answer to the question he was actually asked.

The initial reading of Bush's statement was so absurd it didn't tell you much about the candidate. Knowing what we know now — that the intelligence was wrong and the war was a disaster — only a lunatic would jump in his hot tub time machine and invade Iraq, and there's little evidence that Bush is a lunatic. His initial answer could be chalked up to an odd political decision to simply refuse to criticize his brother under any circumstances.

But Bush's answer to the question he thought he was being asked — would you have invaded Iraq if you only knew what was known then — is more telling, and confirms the worst fears some had about his candidacy. What he said, in effect, was that the Iraq War was a good idea that was undermined by bad intelligence. He said, in other words, that he thinks the basic concept of the Iraq War was right even if the specific case turned out to be wrong.

There were hints of this already. Jeb Bush has surrounded himself with his many of his brother's onetime foreign policy advisers, for instance. But he's never before taken the next step and said that if you liked the kind of foreign policy thinking that got us into the war in Iraq, you should vote for Jeb Bush.

Now he basically has.

Iraq wasn't just a failure of intelligence

U.S. Navy SEALS Train Iraqi Army Scouts In Fallujah Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

The problems with the war in Iraq went much deeper than the intelligence. Even if the information about Saddam Hussein's WMDs had been correct, there's little reason to believe he posed a threat to the United States so severe and immediate that it required a full-scale, US-led invasion. After all, Saddam's earlier efforts at weapons of mass destruction had clearly been developed with an eye primarily toward Iran, his neighbor and rival.

But the WMD intelligence wasn't the only faulty premise behind the Iraq War. The Bush administration believed the US-led invasion would require very little money and very few troops, and that the Americans would be greeted as liberators.

On the eve of war, for instance, George W. Bush's budget director, Mitch Daniels, appeared before Congress and estimated the cost of the war would be "in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion." When Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's top economic adviser, said it might cost more in the $100 billion to $200 billion range, the administration distanced itself from him, and he was ultimately fired. The real cost of the war, of course, is likely to stretch far into the trillions by the time all is said and done.

Similarly, the administration initially estimated it would need fewer than 100,000 troops to invade and pacify Iraq. When General Eric Shinseki said the real number might be multiples of that, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blasted him as "far off the mark," and Shinseki was marginalized in the administration.

Then, of course, there was Vice President Dick Cheney saying, on Meet the Press, that "we will be greeted as liberators" — and the less said about that theory, the better.

The Iraq War was a disaster — but it wasn't just the faulty intelligence. The war never would have happened if the Bush administration had realistically estimated the cost, the military commitment, or the reaction of the Iraqi people. The basic theory of war that made the invasion seem like a good idea was wrong, and America — and Iraq — paid dearly for the error.

But Jeb Bush has apparently learned little from his brother's mistakes. He has disowned the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq, but not the foreign policy thinking that got us there. That's worrying.

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