WORLD'S WORST SLIP OF THE TONGUE. Former President George W. Bush gave a speech Wednesday at the Bush Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He spoke as part of an all-day event titled "Elections — A More Perfect Union" that featured a cast of luminaries: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, famous Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, historian and journalist Jon Meacham, and others.
Bush's brief remarks were intended to support legitimate elections around the globe. The slip of the tongue was this: In a passage in which he meant to condemn the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Ukraine," he instead said the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq." Realizing his mistake, Bush, who as president ordered the 2003 invasion of Iraq, quickly said, "I mean, of Ukraine," then nodded his head and appeared to say, under his breath, "Iraq, too," before adding "anyway" and joking that he is 75 years old.
Bush, of course, was famous for malapropisms at a much younger age. But his reference to Iraq did not come out of nowhere. His decision to invade Iraq, on grounds that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, was one of the most controversial in history and then became more so when U.S. forces failed to find the weapons. Bush himself has written that he is still sickened every time he thinks of the failure to find any WMD. In an unusually frank passage of his memoir, Decision Points, Bush, in a way that is rare for any politician, discussed the decision to go to war and his feelings about it:
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Still, I knew the failure to find WMD would transform the public perception of the war. While the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone, the reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false. That was a massive blow to our credibility — my credibility — that would shake the confidence of the American people. No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.
At SMU, Bush discussed the importance of free elections in maintaining order not just in the countries in which they occur but in the world as well. (You can watch the SMU event here, with Bush's speech starting at 3:01:30.) "The way countries conduct elections is indicative of how their leaders treat their own people and how nations behave toward other nations," Bush said. In his sometimes stream-of-consciousness way, Bush continued:
Nowhere is this on display more clearly than in Ukraine. The Ukrainian people elected Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom I zoomed the other day, by the way, cool little guy — the Churchill of the 21st century. He was empowered by electoral legitimacy. He won 72% of the vote. And now he's leading his nation heroically against Russian invading forces and defending his country. In contrast, Russian elections are rigged. Political opponents are imprisoned or otherwise eliminated from participating in the electoral process. The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean, of Ukraine. Iraq, too — anyway, I'm 75.
The war in Iraq has roiled American politics for nearly 20 years. In the early years, opposition to the war became a litmus test among Democratic politicians. Two of the party's presidential nominees, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, voted to authorize the war as senators, while a third, Barack Obama, avoided the test because he was not in the Senate when the authorization vote was taken.
In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, candidate Donald Trump agitated the GOP when he openly described the war as a disaster. Trump did it in part to rattle his competitor in the primaries, Bush's brother Jeb. But Trump did, in fact, strike a nerve among Republicans who supported the war when it began but came to believe it was a mistake. Now, no one would be surprised if Trump at some point makes use of the new Bush blunder as new ammunition in Trump's battle against what used to be called the Republican establishment.
But most of all, Bush's words at SMU conveyed the sense of a man who made a career-defining mistake that still troubles him, two decades later. It troubles the country, too. In Iraq, 4,431 American soldiers died in the war, and more than 30,000 were wounded. Many veterans and many families are still living with the consequences of Bush's decision. Some of the war's most outspoken proponents walked away from the catastrophe to continue their careers, to move on to opposing Trump and, now, promoting greater U.S. support for Ukraine. But Bush has nowhere to go. He made the decision to invade Iraq, and it clearly bothers him still.
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