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Jeb Folded on Iraq, But the New GOP Consensus Won't Save Us From More Foolish Wars

Marianne Todd/Getty Images

Only a few minutes after we published this article, which argued that Jeb Bush had tacitly—perhaps unknowingly—admitted that the war in Iraq was a mistake, he came out and said so categorically.

“Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged,” Bush said at a town hall event in Tempe, Arizona. “I would have not gone into Iraq.”

This will be hashed over endlessly in the press as an explosive Bush family drama, a sign of tactical weakness, the culmination of a tortured campaign walkback.

But it’s really much more than all that. As recently as six months ago, George W. Bush was holding firmly to the view that invading Iraq was “the right decision.” No regrets. His general line has been that history will judge him, and that he isn’t worried about the verdict time will render.

When all of the viable candidates hoping to become the first Republican president since George W. say the war was a mistake—and when one of those candidates is George W.’s brother—it might as well be time or history talking. As watershed moments in American political history go, this is about as unambiguous and monumental as Ford pardoning Nixon, with a violent, costly, and tragic dimension layered on top of it.

The Vietnam War didn’t invite this kind of introspection for years and years after it ended, in part because its partisan valence wasn't so overwhelming, and to this day a large subset of people who lived through it believe we would have won that war had the left-leaning half of the country not abandoned or sabotaged the effort. The emergence of the new Republican consensus assures that Iraq will be overwhelmingly understood as a huge, self-inflicted blunder, starting now. But the nature of the consensus is sadly lacking in one key sense. To the extent that narrow political self-interest is driving Republicans to embrace this improved view of the war, it's also preventing them from making the greater leap to the conclusion that the Iraq war would have been a bad idea, even if the intelligence the Bush administration trumpeted and manipulated to build support for it happened to be accurate.

Until that dam breaks, if it ever does, we can’t say that the GOP's Iraq consensus guards against future Iraq-like quagmires. Some of these same Republicans seem altogether eager for another.