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Eli Lake: Jeb Bush unclear on the use of ground troops

It’s official. Jeb Bush now doesn’t know whether he would have ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That’s not what he said at first. On Monday, when Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked him about this, the former Florida governor said, “I would have and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

But on Tuesday the younger Bush clarified his answer. On Sean Hannity’s radio show, he said he had thought Kelly asked him what he would have done if he’d had the same information that his brother had at the time (not what decision he now considers best, with hindsight). Bush’s new answer is: “I don’t know what that decision would have been.”

In fairness to Bush, it sounds like he was trying to counter a popular argument about prewar intelligence. Some Democrats contend that the claims of weapons of mass destruction were cherry-picked and the result of political pressure. Bush, however, was asserting what numerous bipartisan investigations have concluded: At least on the question of WMDs, the intelligence agencies in the United States (not to mention Britain, Israel and elsewhere) were just wrong.

But the more interesting part of Bush’s response came in how he explained the chaos that has engulfed Iraq with the rise of the Islamic State. He asserted the establishment Republican Party’s conventional wisdom on this: The surge of troops ordered by George W. Bush after 2007 worked, but then President Obama blew it by withdrawing from Iraq too early. “That security has been totally obliterated by the president’s pulling out too early, and now these voids are filled by this barbaric asymmetric threat that endangers the entire region and the entire world,” Bush told Hannity.

Bush then made an odd point: “The best way to lessen the chance of having American boots on the ground is to have a foreign policy that is strong and secure and consistent.”

It’s easy to deduce what Bush was getting at with that line. War and occupation are never desired outcomes of U.S. foreign policy. And yet there is a tension within the remarks.

If more boots on the ground in Iraq were the key to securing Iraq, why wouldn’t boots on the ground be a component of a strong, secure and consistent foreign policy in 2015?

It’s particularly relevant now. The next president will inherit Obama’s war against the Islamic State. The next president will have to make a decision about sending special operations forces back to Yemen. He or she will probably be waging war in Afghanistan as well. And we don’t yet know what will come of the deteriorating security in Libya and Northern Africa.

Taking the view that strong foreign policy should preclude ground troops makes Bush sound like Obama. He, too, has sought to avoid deploying ground troops. And this has gotten him into some trouble.

There is no doubt that coming out for more troops in Iraq would bring political risk. Americans these days are tired of trying to rebuild Iraq and its army. But Bush is also taking a risk by trying to have it both ways: saying boots on the ground were key in 2007 but should not be key in the future. He appears inconsistent at best and disingenuous at worst.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.