Rubio: Iraq Wasn’t a Mistake, But I Wouldn’t Have Done It

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Molly Riley

The media’s dogged determination to chase every Republican presidential contender down and pummel them for comments about the Iraq War is remarkable to behold, since they are simultaneously willing to let the only 2016 candidate who voted in favor of the war skate by without answering questions about it, or anything else for that matter. While Hillary Clinton is given months to prepare for her ninth question from the press since declaring a candidacy, every Republican is peppered with heavy fire from a throng of journalists on an hourly basis.

Much has been made of the remarkable inability of the Republican candidate actually named “Bush” to express a clear position on the Iraq war. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has also been accused of flip-floppery, because just over a month ago he unambiguously declared the war was not a mistake, and said “the world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.” However, he now says he would not have voted in favor of the war.

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant clarified to CNN that the Senator stands by his earlier statements, thinks the decision to go to war was correct at the time given the intelligence at hand, but says he would not approve of the war knowing what we know now, which are the exact terms of the question media Democrats are hammering Republicans with. “Bush did not make a mistake when he ordered invasion given intelligence and Saddam’s actions,” said Conant.

The problem with squaring this particular circle is that Rubio’s March 30 comments forcefully asserted the Iraq War was not a mistake, which means failing to invade Iraq would have been a mistake, even with the benefit of hindsight and the information available in 2015.

Rubio can reconcile those positions logically, but he needs to do it explicitly, keeping in mind that his speaking skills and foreign policy focus are major bullet points on his presidential resume. He cannot leave this to spokesmen, or the guesswork of supportive op-ed writers. As he crafts his definitive statement on Iraq, Rubio should clearly reference his past statements, remain keenly aware that he stands accused of flip-flopping in the first degree, and understand why the media keeps dropping this question, with its “if we knew then what we know now” payload, on Republicans.

First, here is what Rubio said on March 30, with the necessary context, from an appearance on Fox News’ “The Five.” After discussing the dangers of growing Iranian influence in ISIS-torn Iraq, host Julie Roginsky noted that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was seen as “a great counterweight to Iran,” so his removal and the subsequent deterioration of Iraq empowered the mullahs of Tehran.

“Was it a mistake to go to war in Iraq?” Roginsky asked.

Rubio’s response, in full:

No, I don’t believe that it was. The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq. Here’s what I think might have happened, had we not gone in. You might had an arms race between Iraq and Iran, they both would have pursed a weapon. We would be dealing with two problems, not just one. We forget that Iraq, at the time of the invasion, was in open defiance of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions, that the United Nations refused to enforce. They refused to comply with allowing inspectors in, repeatedly. This was a country whose leader had gassed his own people on numerous occasions.

So I think hindsight is always 20/20, but we don’t know what the world would look like if Saddam Hussein was still there. But I doubt it would look better in terms of — it would be worse — or just as bad for different reasons.

I think it’s very difficult to predict… I think — a better notion is, at the end of the Iraq war, Iraq had an opportunity to have a stable, peaceful future. The U.S. pulled out, completely abandoning it to Maliki, who then proceeded to move forward on these very aggressive strategies against the Sunni. Creating the intellectual and — environment, that allowed ISIS to come back in and take advantage of what’s happening.

Rubio went on to stress that whatever hindsight revealed the actual state of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to be, the dictator “was in open violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, including not allowing inspectors to come in on the ground, et cetera, and the world refused to enforce it.”

As CNN notes, this position is consistent with the one Rubio expressed on their “State of the Union” show in 2010.

However, during a Q&A session at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, Rubio said he did not think “Congress would have voted in favor of the authorization” for invading Iraq if they knew everything that was known today.

“Not only would I not have been in favor of it, but President George W. Bush would not have,” the Senator asserted.

It is interesting to watch the Democrat media rush forward with these “hindsight” questions when their man Barack Obama reacts so bitterly to questions about whether his much more recent Iraq pullout, which paved the way for ISIS to invade, was a mistake in hindsight. Apparently hindsight is valid when peering back at 2002, but not 2011.

One reason we are getting all these “if you knew then what we know now” questions about the Iraq War is to smokescreen the real criticism of Obama’s failure. His catastrophic mistakes in Iraq were obvious given what was known at the timeand smarter men tried to warn him about. He ignored them, and the Iraqis, because he had a political agenda that involved convincing the American people that terrorism had been smashed, al-Qaeda was “decimated and on the run,” and ISIS was but the “junior varsity league” of terror.

Obama and Clinton supporters are desperate to reframe the critique of Obama’s foreign policy as “would you have worked harder on that Status of Forces agreement with Iraq, if you knew ISIS would invade?” because it makes him look better, and makes his critics look unreasonable. “Would you have supported George Bush on the Iraq War, if you knew what would happen?” is a tactic to set them up as hypocrites for denying Obama comparable benefit of the doubt, or to retroactively pin the rise of ISIS on George Bush.

Every Republican candidate who ever said anything supportive of the Iraq War, whether they held any public office in 2002 or not, will be accused of flip-flopping if they now concede they would not have voted for it with the benefit of hindsight.

Also, media liberals would very much like to get hawkish Republicans on the record saying the Iraq War was a complete blunder, to dispirit the Republican Party’s supporters in the military community. It would complete the process of absolving the lunatic Left of responsibility for their excesses during the latter Bush years.

Rubio was correct in that Fox News interview to challenge sanguine assumptions about the pastoral scenery on the road not taken. We cannot say what the murderous Saddam Hussein would have done if left in power. The brief for war presented by the Bush Administration covered far more than his drive to obtain nuclear weapons, which was not anywhere near as sated as history revisionists would have us believe. Flagrant defiance of U.N. resolutions, without consequence, was destroying the credibility of an international institution liberals claim to deeply believe in. Iran and other bad actors would have been inspired to even greater defiance… and as the utter debacle of Obama’s “nuclear negotiations” illustrates, the mullahs aren’t exactly model citizens in this timeline.

As for ISIS, there is no reason to feel confident that Saddam would have kept them bottled up in Syria or neutralized them. ISIS could easily have ended up in an alliance with Saddam’s Iraq – the remnants of his Baath party certainly seem to get along with them well.

Supporters of the Iraq war had a theory that establishing a purple-finger beachhead for democracy, after decapitating the Hussein regime, would make the Middle East more stable by giving it a shining example to counter the bloody allure of Islamist fundamentalism. It didn’t work out that way… but was it absolutely, 100 percent foolish for them to try, given the post-9/11 atmosphere? It is not as if Democrats can claim to have learned any lessons about the folly of regime change, since Obama and Clinton did the same thing in Libya – even more unilaterally, and with even more hideous results.

There is a way for a gifted orator like Marco Rubio to explain that he has learned those lessons– that he is not interested in second-guessing the past, or speculating about what he would have done, if he had been in position to cast the vote Hillary Clinton actually did cast. It’s not unreasonable to take stock of mistakes that have been made, and gambles that didn’t pay off, while also understanding positive consequences, and admitting that hindsight really isn’t 20/20.

Even those who disagree with the vision Rubio articulates would respect his willingness to stand by everything he has said, acknowledge that it seems at variance with what he now says he would have done in 2002, and explain why it is not 2002 any more.  “It wasn’t a mistake, but I wouldn’t have done it” is tricky political ground, but it can be held.


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