Even since Fox's Megyn Kelly asked Jeb Bush on Monday whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 "knowing what we know now," and he said yes, the candidate has been furiously backtracking. First he claimed that he "interpreted the question wrong," thinking it was about whether he would have invaded given what people knew in 2003 (Ezra Klein thinks Bush likely did indeed mishear the question). Then he said the very question "does a disservice to a lot of people who sacrificed a lot" during the war. Then, on Thursday, he finally said that "knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged."
It's not just Bush tackling this issue: the broader Republican field has also been weighing in on the question, and their answers are revealing: for one thing, they've almost uniformly said they wouldn't have launched the war. Here's a list of what the candidates have said, with thanks to Jose DelReal and Dave Weigel — along with a translation of what they actually mean.
What he said: A longtime Iraq War critic, Paul has had a field day with Bush's comments, telling the AP "to say that nothing would happen differently means we’re going to get George Bush 3." He expanded on that in a CNN interview:
I think even at the time invading Iraq was a mistake... given the intelligence. But now I think people should learn their lesson after the war in Libya. All the Republicans should be asked: "Did you and do you support Hillary's war in Libya?"
What he meant: Paul wants to try to make non-interventionism into a more popular position in the GOP — and pointing out the failures of the Iraq War is a great way to do that. Linking Republican failures in Iraq to Hillary Clinton and the Libya intervention (which some of his opponents supported) is a way of establishing non-interventionism as a conservative policy, and his more hawkish opponents as on the same team as Democrats.
What he said: When asked by Charlie Rose whether he would have supported the invasion "after finding out that there were no weapons of mass destruction," Rubio said no:
Well, not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it, and he said so ... But, let’s also be fair about the context. Yes, there was intelligence that was faulty, but there was a history with Iraq of evasion, it was a country that had had mobile units in the past that it had used for both CW — chemical weapons — and biological weapons capabilities.
What he meant: Rubio is the biggest hawk in the Republican race: his longtime record of taking strong neoconservative positions has put him in a good place to win support from GOP megadonors like Sheldon Adelson. So Rubio took a very smart tack to this question: he distanced both himself and President Bush, a neocon favorite, from the consequences of the Iraq War. Moreover, he managed to show off what he knew about the history of pre-invasion Iraq and the sanctions regime, further demonstrating his foreign policy chops.
What he said: "Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq," Cruz said to the Hill:
At the time, the intelligence reports indicated that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that posed a significant national security threat to this country. That’s the reason there was such widespread bipartisan support for going into Iraq. ... We now know in hindsight, those intelligence reports were false.
Without that predicate, it is difficult to imagine the decision would have been made to go into Iraq, and that predicate proved erroneous.
What he meant: Though Cruz, like Rubio, denounced the Iraq War, there's a subtle but important distinction: Cruz simply said that there was no reason for war in the absence of Iraqi WMD. Cruz has tried to differentiate himself from Rubio and from more conventional Republican hawks by expressing skepticism of the use of US military force when there's not a direct threat to the US (Rubio and others are more interested in spreading democracy). The subtle difference in rhetoric reflects this gap, whether the two men intended it or not.
What he said: "President Bush made the best decision he could at the time," but "I don't think you can honestly say that if we knew then that there was no WMD that the country should have gone to war." He added a Jeb-like twist:
I think what we've got to avoid is continuing to go backwards in this country. We need a forward-looking foreign policy that talks about how to reassert American authority and influence.
What he meant: Christie isn't exactly known as a foreign policy candidate, but he needed to at least show credibility. So he took a simpler version of Rubio's fairly conventional line: Bush can't be blamed for the bad intelligence, but the war was a mistake. He pivoted to safer territory — phrases like "reassert American authority and influence."
What he said: "There’s a lot of people who lost limbs and lives over there, OK?" the Ohio governor said to the Columbus Dispatch. He did nonetheless answer:
But if the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no ... I wouldn’t have seen it as vital to national interests.
What he meant: Kasich isn't very well-known relative to his competitors: in New Hampshire, a key primary state, he has the lowest name recognition of any of the main contenders. Butting into this debate is a way of raising his profile, and also for a comparatively obscure governor to show that he can hang (at least a bit) on world politics.