SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (Reuters) - Republican Jeb Bush reversed position Thursday on whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, reflecting a struggle between being his own man in his expected run for the White House and remaining loyal to his brother who started the war, former President George W. Bush.
Jeb Bush’s days-long search for the right formulation to describe his position on Iraq appeared to expose some rustiness on the campaign trail eight years after serving as governor of Florida.
George W. Bush has privately made clear to his brother that it is okay to put some distance between the two of them, a source close to the Bush family said.
But Jeb’s loyalty, plus his belief that the service of people who fought and died in Iraq must be respected, led him into a wobbly response in a Fox News interview early this week when he said he would have invaded Iraq.
He finally straightened it out on Thursday at a town hall event in Tempe, Arizona, ahead of an evening appearance before members of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in Scottsdale.
“Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged, I would have not gone into Iraq,” Bush said.
Jeb Bush has said throughout his exploration of a run for the Republican presidential nomination for the November 2016 election that while he loves his family, he would be “my own man” as president.
Bush told reporters in Tempe that it was not easy to break away from the positions of his brother, who ordered the U.S. military into Iraq in 2003 based on intelligence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.
“I don’t go out of my way to disagree with my brother,” Bush said. “I am loyal to him. I don’t think it’s necessary to go through every place where I disagree with him.”
He said he had been reluctant to speak his mind about the invasion because as governor, he had called relatives of military personnel killed in Iraq.
“It’s very hard for me to say that their lives were lost in vain,” he said. “In fact, they weren’t.”
The issue may continue to dog Bush on the campaign trail.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who is likely to run for the Republican nomination, told reporters he was puzzled at Bush’s inability to disavow the Iraq war from the outset.
“I don’t know how that was a hard question,” Santorum said.
“I’ve been asked that question a hundred times and the answer is pretty clear. The information was not correct...I think everybody accepts that now.”
Others attending the RNC spring meeting thought Bush found the right response even though it took him a while.
“I think it’s important for him to point out he’s his own man. He just needs to keep repeating that,” said Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire who was a top aide to 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain.
What matters to voters is whether Bush is perceived to have flip-flopped on the issue for political purposes, said Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
“I think he can get past it assuming he can write it off as poor articulation of the views,” said Anuzis, a supporter of the presidential bid of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. “If it is actually viewed as a flip-flop, then it becomes an issue.”
Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Toni Reinhold, Grant McCool