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Bush struggles to clarify stance on wisdom of invading Iraq

WASHINGTON (AP) — Struggling with the shadows of Iraq, Jeb Bush said Tuesday he would have made a different decision than his brother to invade Iraq in 2003 had he known what he does now about flaws in the nation’s intelligence.

But he didn’t say what that decision would have been.

Bush’s comments came as he tried to clarify his stance on the unpopular war started in 2003 by President George W. Bush. Yet his murky remarks underscore the challenge he faces in managing his family’s foreign policy legacy while setting out his own approach to world affairs.

Several of his likely rivals for the Republican presidential nomination leapt at the chance to definitively answer a question that Bush did not.

In a radio interview Tuesday, Bush said it was clear there were mistakes in reports claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Had he known about the faulty intelligence, Bush said, he would have made a different decision about sending tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Iraq.

“I don’t know what that decision would have been,” Bush said on Sean Hannity’s radio show. “That’s a hypothetical.”

The radio interview came a day after Fox News broadcast an interview with Bush in which he sidestepped the question about whether he would have sent U.S. troops to Iraq, knowing what is now known about the intelligence that led his brother to invade.

Hannity made a point to ask Bush if he wanted to clarify his answer from the previous interview, and Bush replied that he had “interpreted the question wrong.” A follow-up query from the conservative host, repeating the original question, led to Bush’s “I don’t know” answer.

Bush is on the cusp of formally launching his campaign, and some of his rivals for the nomination seized on the opportunity to draw a distinction with him on Iraq — a war once strongly supported by the GOP. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told The Associated Press it’s “a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently.”

Paul, who stands out in the GOP field by supporting a smaller U.S. military footprint around the world, has said it was a mistake to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, pointing to the chaos in Iraq that followed the U.S. invasion.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said going into Iraq was ultimately the wrong decision.

“If we knew then what we know now, and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” Christie said in an interview with CNN. In a pointed jab at Bush’s evasion, he added that he wanted to “directly answer” the reporter’s question “’cause that’s what I do.”

Said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, “Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declined to address the question directly, but in a statement praised soldiers who “poured their sweat and blood across Iraq.”

“Unfortunately, they were let down by poor intelligence, a botched military strategy and an Iraqi people more interested in pointing fingers and placing blame than taking control of their future,” Huckabee said.

Not all Republican White House hopefuls have disowned the decision to invade Iraq. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio defended the war earlier this year, saying “the world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”

A September 2014 AP-GfK poll found that 71 percent of Americans said they think history will judge the war as a failure. Among Republicans, that assessment was even more prevalent, with 76 percent saying the war would be seen a failure.

Most of the GOP White House hopefuls argue that President Barack Obama overcorrected after ending the long and expensive war by withdrawing American forces, yet they are mindful that many Americans remain skeptical of large-scale U.S. combat efforts abroad. With the U.S. back in Iraq in a more limited way to help fight Islamic State militants, Obama’s successor is all but sure to confront lingering fallout from the original invasion and its aftermath.

Tackling America’s difficult history in Iraq is most challenging for Bush, given his family ties to the war. He has sought to distance himself from his brother’s foreign policy in recent months, even as he relies on many of the same advisers and cites his brother someone he relies on for advice.

Democrats had their reckoning with the Iraq war during the 2008 presidential election. Obama’s early opposition to the war helped him distinguish himself from Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Clinton, who voted to authorize the war as a senator, has since said that based on the revised intelligence, she would not have voted for the war.

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AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington and Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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