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Jeb Bush’s tightrope walk between family loyalty and rational foreign policy makes for morbidly fascinating political theater. But the question he muffed, and continues to muff, is the easy one.

Republican presidential candidates are tripping all over each other to say that knowing what we know now, that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, of course they would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. From Fox News to the Sean Hannity Show to a campaign event in Nevada, however, Bush has not been able to bring himself to say that. “Based on the information we had,” he said in Reno, the invasion was “the right decision.” Given 20-20 hindsight, “I don’t know what that decision would have been,” he told Hannity.

Most of us have moved way beyond that, as documented by an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll last year that found 71 percent of Americans do not think the Iraq war was worth it.

Going forward, there are far more relevant questions that Republican and Democratic candidates alike need to answer. For instance, what if the intelligence had been solid and Iraq really did have WMD? Knowing what we know now, not about WMD but about the geopolitical consequences of our intervention, would you still have gone into Iraq? Or would you have tried to find another way to contain Saddam? For instance the way we already were containing him, with sanctions, no-fly zones and bombing attacks on Iraqi military forces?

And while we’re on the subject, what do you think about pre-emptive warfare, on the premise that a nation or a leader is an imminent threat? Was George W. Bush justified in viewing Iraq as an imminent threat? Do you agree? What other countries would you attack or invade on that basis? Syria, which had and may still have chemical weapons? North Korea, which has nuclear weapons? What about Iran — is it an imminent threat? Would you stop nuclear negotiations and start bombing its nuclear facilities? Would you put boots on the ground, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he might in Syria? Would you feel a calling or an obligation to rebuild these nations and spread democracy there after we bomb and/or invade them?

As it happens, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky addressed a lot of these questions this week. “Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, things have been worse and America has been less safe,” he said Wednesday on CNN, citing Iraq and “Hillary’s war in Libya” as examples. He threw in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as well, saying it was a mistake to try to degrade him because “as we degraded the strongman Assad, ISIS grew.” Americans, he added, should ask themselves whether they want a leader “who will perpetually get us involved in foreign war over there when the result is not to America’s best interests, or someone who will be more reluctant.” And by the way, he said, “even at the time” and given the intelligence, he thought invading Iraq was a mistake.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is among those who has said the same, and he also came down firmly against nation building. “It is not the job of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to transform foreign nations into democratic utopias,” he said on Fox News.

Jeb Bush, by contrast, and maybe in deference to his brother, is far less categorical. “Am I the same as my brother? Of course not,” Bush told Hannity. “For example, our foreign policy ought to be grounded in not just the export of our own values or nation building — those are good sentiments — but first and foremost in security and peace.”

So, they’re “good sentiments” and still on the table. All those who want to build another couple of nations in the Middle East and try to sell them on values like diversity and feminism, raise your hands.

That’s what I thought.

In his 2010 book, Decision Points, George W. Bush wrote that “the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone.” But that was a questionable assertion even while he was in office. By fall 2006, according to The New York Times, U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that “the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.” The assessments didn’t improve with time. “The glaring lesson of the war is that American ground invasions destabilize the Middle East, instead of stabilizing it,” David Rohde wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war.

This is the discussion we need in 2016. It’s a lot more complicated than whether we should have gone to war against a dictator who turned out not to have WMD.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com. 

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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