Jeb Bush / Photo taken by Gage Skidmore

Iraq is yet again poised to be a major foreign policy issue come next year and the upcoming presidential election given the threat the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group continues to pose. With a third Bush potentially entering the presidential race soon it’s important to reassess his father and brothers controversial legacies in Iraq.

As for Jeb himself, he has already expressed reservations about the Obama administrations disengagement from that region. He believes that a residual force of American troops should have remained in Iraq as part of a status-of-forces (SOFA) agreement of the kind the U.S. has maintained for years with countries such Germany, Japan and South Korea. If they had done that Bush believes that “we probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now.”

Bush has also said he wouldn’t hesitate sending American troops into Iraq or anywhere else in the region if he knew his detractors would brand such a deployment the “third Bush war” (a term radio host Hugh Hewitt used when questioning Jeb about any family legacy issues which will more likely than not come into play in the upcoming elections if he opts to run).

Perhaps these comment indicate that if, as Commander-in-Chief, he felt it was necessary Bush would indeed be willing to deploy “boots on the ground” in Iraq, and/or even in Syria, to combat that terror gang if it is still considered to be a threat in 2017. Bush also believes that he doesn’t “think there’s anything that relates to what my dad did and my brother did that would compel me to think one way or the other.”

It’s important to remember that the last two president Bush’s undertook notably different kinds of war under quite different circumstances and pretexts. Many supporters of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for example, opposed the 2003 Iraq War since they viewed the former as a necessary usage of military force against an aggressor state and the latter as a preemptive and counterproductive war of choice against a neutered and hemmed-in dictatorship.

This is an important elementary point to factor into account. In 1991 President George H.W. Bush had strong support internationally for his endeavour to kick Saddam Hussein’s occupying army out of Kuwait after its August 1990 invasion, and subsequent annexation, of that oil-rich sheikdom. The United Nations supported measures be taken against the Iraqi regime and the military coalition built to force Saddam to retreat was a major multinational one. After his forces were hounded out of Kuwait the Iraqi regime was left in power and crushed consequent revolts against its brutal rule. Administration policymakers and officials, including George H.W. Bush himself (and the likes of the National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Richard Haass and, at the time, Colin Powell), deemed it a pragmatic move since the coalition was built around the sole purpose of uprooting Iraq from Kuwait, not forcibly dismantling the regime and, consequently, undertaking a nation-building effort. Furthermore the 2003 war also had next to no international support, and a lot of opposition before it even began, a far cry from 1991.

President Bush Snr. meets troops in 1990 during Operation Desert Shield (left). Bush Jnr. on deck of Abraham Lincoln declaring Mission Accomplished in May 2003 (right).
President Bush Snr. meets troops in 1990 during Operation Desert Shield (left). Bush Jnr. on deck of Abraham Lincoln declaring “Mission Accomplished” in May 2003 (right).

In 2003 removing the regime and “going to Baghdad” was the case. A radical move from the so-called “realist” position of containment, and possibly even eventual accommodation, of the Saddam Hussein regime. George W. Bush, it shouldn’t be forgotten, ran on an isolationist platform in the 2000 presidential elections which was strongly critical of nation-building undertakings. Bush cited President Bill Clinton’s deployment of troops to Haiti and Somalia respectively as something he would be opposed to as president. Yet after the September 11 2001 terror attacks, and the ensuing military intervention in Afghanistan against the Taliban regime there, he became much more open to the idea of militarily intervening in Iraq, removing Saddam Hussein for good and helping to establish a new Iraqi government. A controversial move which resulted in the very unpopular Iraq War quagmire.

It’s worth remembering these distinctions and also remembering that if he is the third Bush to seek the presidency, and win, in under 30-years Jeb Bush will face a situation in Iraq which is quite unlike the ones his father and brother initially faced. Indeed Iraq today appears more complicated than ever. In 1991 the stated objective was relatively clear-cut, the removal of an occupying army from Kuwait. Proponents of the 2003 war tried to sell a similarly simple course of action, the disarmament and removal of a tyrannical regime, a course of action they argued would pave the way for a more democratic order. Of course that turned out to be very arduous and complicated, not to mention costly and embroiling, for the United States.

Another lessen we can probably derive from the two Bush administrations’ dealings with Iraq is how their endeavours invariably became more overstretched or much more difficult than they initially anticipated. In the 1991 war shortly after the February 28 ceasefire, which formally and officially ended hostilities between the coalition and Iraq, the administration of George H.W. Bush found itself being criticized for not assisting the Shi’ite Arabs and the Kurds of Iraq who rose up against their dictator and tried to free themselves from the shackles of his rule and were consequently subjected to more massacres. This saw the administration, along with the U.K. and France for a time, having to establish an aerial umbrella (the so-called “no fly-zones”) over large parts of Iraq to stop the regime from killing large numbers of Iraqis. That situation continued right up until the onset of the 2003 war.

And indeed following the 2003 invasion the administration found itself embroiled in a war-torn country it knew little about having to deal with divisive post-invasion sectarian violence and undergoing arduous attempts of nation-building in a country whose social and state institutions had been badly degraded and eroded away by years of dictatorship coupled with crippling international sanctions.

Both these precedents, while not at all identical to a scenario the next President of the United States may face in Iraq are nevertheless quite informative. Especially if that next President is another member of the Bush family.