Blair Offers Ersatz Apology for Iraq War; Bush None at All
In the coming weeks, the UK is certain to be rocked by the Chilcot Inquiry, the years-overdue investigation into the planning, marketing and execution of the Iraq War under former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair.
That timing explains the preventive PR war Blair launched over the past week to soften the coming blows. On the airwaves and the op-ed pages, the mastermind of New Labour repackaged some old apologies to defend--not atone for--his decision to join U.S. President George W. Bush in ousting Saddam Hussein. Acknowledging that there are "elements of truth" to the well-documented history that the invasion and occupation of Iraq fueled the rise of ISIS, Blair nevertheless countered that "I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam." Speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN, Blair made the world historical, strategic catastrophe for his country and ours sound like an ill-timed fart:
"I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I can also apologize by the way for some of the mistakes and planning and certainly our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you remove the regime."
If that script sounds familiar, it should. After all, that kind of finger-pointing was behind Jeb Bush's short-lived talking point that "knowing what we know now" he "would not have engaged" in the preventive war against Iraq. Or as his fellow Floridian and 2016 White House wannabe Marco Rubio put it in May:
"Not only would I not have been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it."
But that statement is simply not true. And we know this because George W. Bush repeatedly told us so.
That's right. Bush didn't just declare in 2013 that "I'm confident the decisions were made the right way," decisions that direcly led to the needless Iraq war that killed 4,500 American soldiers, wounded 30,000 more, converted Baghdad into an Iranian satellite and birthed ISIS. To the degree Dubya admitted to any mistakes it all, it was limited to his use of his "bad language" and "gun-slinging rhetoric"about the war.
That Bush was unrepentant, unaware or both became apparent in April 2004. Thirteen months after the start of "shock and awe" in Iraq, President Bush could not acknowledge ousting Saddam--or anything else--constituted a mistake. During a White House press conference, President Bush could not think of a single error he had made during his tenure in the White House:
"I'm sure something will pop into my head here...maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
In August 30, 2004, Bush43 confessed that his only failure in Iraq was being too successful:
"Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
But by January 2007, just days after he announced the surge in Iraq, Bush admitted to Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes that he had made mistakes, if only semantic ones:
PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?
BUSH: You know, we've been through this before. Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, "bring them on" was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.
(Mary Kewatt, whose nephew Jim was killed by a sniper in Baghdad in 2003 doubtless agreed. As she lamented to Minnesota Public Radio that summer, "President Bush made a comment a week ago, and he said, 'bring it on.' They brought it on and now my nephew is dead.")
Bush's most jaw-dropping statement of regret about his tough talk came in June 2008. In London as part of his final swing through Europe before leaving the White House, President Bush told The Times of London that his cowboy rhetoric was perhaps his greatest regret:
President Bush has admitted to The Times that his gun-slinging rhetoric made the world believe that he was a "guy really anxious for war" in Iraq.
[...] In an exclusive interview, he expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric."
Phrases such as "bring them on" or "dead or alive", he said, "indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace."
Of course, many Americans struggled with the notion that George W. Bush was a "man of peace" after he had repeatedly bragged to them that "I'm a war president." Bush doubtless made matters worse by joking about the bloodbath he inaugurated in Iraq. On March 24, 2004 (the same day his former Counter-Terrorism Czar Richard Clarke told the 9/11 Commission, "Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you"), President Bush regaled the audience at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner in Washington. As David Corn recalled:
Bush notes he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." Then we see a photo of him on the phone with a finger in his ear. But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn't the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.
Bush's punchlines about the missing "smoking gun that could come in the form of the mushroom cloud" was no laughing matter to the families of the Americans killed and maimed in Iraq. And over the years, it was no laughing matter to President Bush's closest aides, either.
In his 2010 memoir Courage and Consequence, Karl Rove blamed himself for not lying more about the war. As Baker wrote at the time ("Rove on Iraq: Without W.M.D. Threat, Bush Wouldn't Have Gone to War"):
"Would the Iraq War have occurred without W.M.D.? I doubt it," he writes. "Congress was very unlikely to have supported the use-of-force resolution without the W.M.D. threat. The Bush administration itself would probably have sought other ways to constrain Saddam, bring about regime change, and deal with Iraq's horrendous human rights violations."
He adds: "So, then, did Bush lie us into war? Absolutely not." But Mr. Rove said the White House had only a "weak response" to the harmful allegation, which became "a poison-tipped dagger aimed at the heart of the Bush presidency."
After Jeb's "knowing what we know now" imbroglio, Dubya's former press secretary Ari Fleischer lamented, "No, it was not handled well by Gov. Bush. I don't know why he said what he did." But this is how Fleischer himself recently addressed the "knowing what we know now" question on Iraq:
"I just don't think he would have gone to war. I think he would have turned up the heat on Saddam, but I don't think he would have gone to war."
Then again, that's not what Ari Fleischer was saying before. As he put it to Chris Matthews in March 2009:
"After September 11th having been hit once how could we take a chance that Saddam might strike again? And that's the threat that has been removed and I think we are all safer with that threat removed." [Emphasis mine]
As his presidential library was about to open in 2013, Bush declared he was "comfortable" with life and his legacy. And that included the legacy of his war of choice in Iraq. "It's easy to forget," he said, "what life was like when the decision was made."
And in Bush's own 2010 memoir, Decision Points, the decision to remove Saddam over his non-existent weapons of mass destruction was an embarrassment, but not a mistake. As Peter Baker documented for the New York Times in May 2015 ("Unlike His Brother, George W. Bush Stands by His Call to Invade Iraq"):
"No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons," Mr. Bush wrote. "I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do." The false intelligence proved to be "a massive blow to our credibility -- my credibility -- that would shake the confidence of the American people," he concluded...
"Imagine what the world would look like today with Saddam Hussein still ruling Iraq," Mr. Bush wrote. "He would still be threatening his neighbors, sponsoring terror and piling bodies into mass graves."
"Instead," he added, "as a result of our actions in Iraq, one of America's most committed and dangerous enemies stopped threatening us forever."
As it turned out, not so much. Last November, the former president used the press tour for his biography of his father to once again defend the rightness of his March 2003 invasion of Iraq. If "bad language" had been his only regret while in office, by the end of 2014 Bush's lone misgiving was the rise of ISIS:
"I think it was the right decision. My regret is that a violent group of people has risen up again. This is al Qaeda plus. I put in the book that they need to be defeated. And I hope they are. I hope the strategy works."
Unfortunately, as Jeb Bush learned from 19-year old college student Ivy Ziedrich, "Your brother created ISIS." As I summed up Team Bush's culpability for the birth and rise of the Islamic State in May:
Ms. Ziedrich's is a bold claim. After all, for her to be right, ISIS--the dangerous movement combining Saddam loyalists, former Al Qaeda members and disgruntled Sunni fighters--would have to have emerged as a direct result of the war Bush launched in 2003. The disbanding of Saddam's 400,000 man army would have to be laid at the feet of "The Decider." Foreign fighters must have flocked to Al Qaeda--a non-factor in Iraq before the U.S. invasion--specifically to target American troops. And while those unlikely allies forged ties in U.S and Iraqi prisons, Sunni tribesmen once paid by American forces would have to have become alienated by a sectarian Shiite strongman in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The inevitable outcome of such U.S. mismanagement of post-Saddam Iraq, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld privately warned his boss on October 15, 2002, would be that "Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Sunni, Shia, and Kurds" with the result that "it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East and the benefit of Iran."
Unfortunately for Jeb Bush, and to Ivy Ziedrich's credit, that is precisely what transpired. Or to push in terms even Republican myth-makers can understand: ISIS? George W. Bush built that.
It's with good reason that even the ever-smarmy Tony Blair had to admit this week, "Of course, you can't say that those who removed Saddam in 2003 have no responsibility for the situation in 2015." Of course, George W. Bush had in his own way admitted as much in his December 2008 exit interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC News:
BUSH: One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq. This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand. This is where al Qaeda was hoping to take--
RADDATZ: But not until after the U.S. invaded.
BUSH: Yeah, that's right. So what? The point is that al Qaeda said they're going to take a stand. Well, first of all in the post-9/11 environment Saddam Hussein posed a threat. And then upon removal, al Qaeda decides to take a stand.
Before and since, George W. Bush has taken a stand on his decision to go to war in Iraq. As he explained in that 2014 hagiography of his dad (41: A Portrait of My Father), Dubya proclaimed:
"One thing is certain: The Iraqi people, the United States and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein in power," Mr. Bush wrote. "I believe the decision that Dad made in 1991 was correct -- and I believe the same is true of the decision I made a dozen years later."
History, as both he and Jeb are fond of saying, will judge the 2003 Iraq war. Sadly for them both, it's already clear that history's judgment won't be kind. Alas, bring a Republican apparently means never having to say you're sorry.