Following a rough week, Jeb Bush on Wednesday tried to aim the spotlight away from the decision to go into Iraq and focused it instead on President Barack Obama, sharply criticizing his decision to pull U.S. forces out of the country.
The former Florida governor, appearing at a business roundtable here, also called for a strategy to “take out” ISIS but did not go into specifics. He mostly argued that the war started during his brother’s administration helped create stability in Iraq and since been unraveled because of Obama’s policies.
“The focus ought to be on knowing what you know now, Mr. President, should you have kept 10,000 troops in Iraq?” said Bush, who’s expected to announce his presidential bid in the coming months.
In December 2011, the United States withdrew its final combat troops from Iraq, bringing an end to the nearly decade-long conflict that started under George W. Bush. The Obama administration asked for more troops to remain on the ground, but negotiations with the Iraqi government did not ensure that U.S. military personnel would be granted immunity.
Jeb Bush argued that Obama “could have kept the troops in and he could have had an agreement,” adding “the United States had enough influence to be able to deal with the immunity issue.”
“He made the decision to get out. I don’t begrudge him that. It was a decision made based on a campaign promise,” he told reporters in New Hampshire. “It wasn’t based on conditions in Iraq at the time and I think we’re paying a price for it.”
Critics at the time warned that extremist elements would grow more powerful without a U.S. presence, and now Republican presidential contenders are pointing to the rise of ISIS as proof that the United States should have pushed harder to stay in Iraq.
In his remarks at the business roundtable – an event organized by New Hampshire activist Renee Plummer – Bush defended his brother’s leadership during the Iraq war.
“ISIS didn’t exist when my brother was President. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was President,” he said. “There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure, but the surge created a fragile but stable Iraq that the President could’ve built on and it would’ve not allowed ISIS.”
He called for a plan to “take out ISIS” with help from other countries, saying there is currently “no strategic imperative” to restore stability in Iraq. Asked later by reporters what that strategy should be and whether it should include combat troops in the area, Bush said he would rely on advice from military advisers.
“We have ground troops in Iraq. I would take the best advice that you could get from the military. Make the decisions based on conditions on the ground, not for some political purpose,” he said. “Whether we need more than 3,000 – which is what we have now – I would base that on what the military advisers say.”
Bush struggled to answer questions last week about whether he would have gone into Iraq knowing what’s known now about faulty intelligence that initially spurred military action. After multiple days of unclear answers, he ultimately said he would not have invaded in hindsight.
His difficulty in answering the question – one that pits his loyalty to his brother against political calculation – created a narrative that drew criticism from other White House hopefuls and sparked questions of whether Bush was ready for prime time.
At the roundtable in Wednesday, however, Bush was met with encouragement from voters. When one man called Bush’s family an “asset,” the room broke out into applause. As he’s done at every event, Bush maintained that he loved his family, and he sought to assure the audience that he’s gotten through last week’s storm.
“It got bumpy, but all is well now,” he said. “The ship is stable.”