Jeb Bush's recent fumble of Meghan Kelly's query of whether, "knowing what was known at the time, would you have invaded Iraq" was discouraging for the content - "yes", "I didn't understand the question", "I love my brother" - but more for his failure to preempt the obvious line of eventual Democratic attack with a concise, but complete policy statement. What would that look like?
There are three parts:
1. What did we know at the time?
- The Middle East is a perilous place, divided between the Shia and the Sunni; divided between Arab, Iranian, Kurdish, and other ethnic spheres of influence; politically organized into countries with artificial boundaries; frequently ruled by despotic descendents of rulers put in place by the departing colonial powers. Iraq suffered from all of the maladies.
- Saddam Hussein had engaged in a war with Iran which had killed some 1,000,000 people. His minority Sunni government oppressed the majority Shia population, and ruled through massive intimidation. He had invaded Kuwait. After George HW Bush's victory in the truncated First Gulf War, Hussein took his revenge on the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south.
- Hussein had used chemical weapons against the Kurds. He had aspirations for a nuclear program, but there was no evidence of an significant progress in that direction.
- Hussein and his secular Baath Party were no friends of al Queda and others seeking an Islamic government.
2. What has happened since that has given us a better perspective?
- To everyone's surprise, despite Hussein's having used chemical weapons a few years earlier, none were found.
- The war was more difficult than expected, particularly in the western Sunni provinces. Some 4400 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis died in the war. With the successful surge in 2007, many Sunni tribal leaders aligned with the American-supported government in the "Sunni Awakening".
- In democratic elections, the majority Shia prevailed, electing a president, al-Maliki, who had no interest in reconciliation.
- Barack Obama decided to remove all American troops, eliminating any leverage that we had over the Maliki government, and leaving an Iraqi military that was inadequately trained and Shia-dominated.
- Obama further destroyed American credibility and influence when he called for the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2011 with no plan to make it happen, then in 2012 drew a "red line" about al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, and did nothing in the breach.
- The administration grossly underestimated ISIS, which the President derided 16 months ago as the Junior Varsity - shortly before their victorious explosion across much of Iraq and Syria. There is no talk of an intelligence failure - it was a failure of ego and political blinders at the White House.
3. Most importantly, how do we apply that experience and understanding to what lies ahead? There are no easy answers; leadership is needed.
- We have two preeminent interests in the Middle East - prevention of a nuclear arms race triggered by Iran, and defeat of terrorism as represented by ISIS. The Obama administration does not give cause for optimism on either count. Unfortunately, much bad can happen in the next 19 months.
- It is dangerous to remove a leader without a clear path to a stable preferable alternative. Iraq offers one example; Khadafi's Libya - led by European allies with US support - offers another. In terms of human suffering a tyrant may be better than decentralized local rule by competing militias. In the absence of a better alternative, Bashar al-Assad should remain the leader of Syria.
- The dream that the countries of the Middle East will adopt Western-style democracy has been shown to be false. The test for our support should instead be whether the rulers achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their populations.
- In some cases the boundaries created by the colonial powers need to be re-drawn. Joe Biden may have been right that the best solution for Iraq is loose federation of Shia Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish regions, rather than artificially forcing the Sunni and Shia together. If there is to be order in Libya, it may be necessary to have separate governments in the eastern and western parts of the country.
- As is shown by the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Iraq, the use of air power without competent ground forces is unlikely to achieve significant success. Somebody's "boots on the ground" are needed - and some will need to be ours if success against ISIS is to be achieved.
These are issues worth of a presidential candidate. The exact shape is unclear, but it is certain that Barack Obama will leave a much messier and more dangerous world than he inherited from George W Bush. Jeb Bush's lack of preparation left him fighting a decade-old hypothetical instead offering a vision for the next decade, and left many Republicans wondering if he has the vision, the advisers, and the edge necessary for the job.
This week's video is MSNBCs assessment that the Obama administration's strategy for defeating ISIS is not working.