This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.

Jeb Bush gave a maiden foreign policy speech in Chicago yesterday in which he mixed up Iran with Iraq and alleged with science fictional inaccuracy that Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) has 200,000 men under arms. The actual number of fighters is probably 20,000. His office later admitted that he “misspoke.”

But did he? A slip like that can reveal how a person views the world. Jeb Bush seems to think that menacing groups out there are 10 times larger than they are.

For comparison, France has an active duty army of 215,000. He made a small congeries of criminal gangs in the arid east of Syria and northwest of Iraq into a military power equivalent to France!

(Even the 20,000 figure for Daesh’s supposed strength is misleading because it is an all-volunteer guerrilla force, essentially doubling as neighborhood thugs and enforcers in Raqqah and Mosul; Daesh can’t possibly field a conventional infantry division of that size in the field.)

J. Bush also said at one point that in 2003 ISIL did not exist. But Daesh or ISIL goes back to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and before that to Tawhid. Ironically, Jeb’s brother hyped Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq as a reason the US had to invade! So ISIL did exist under a different name. And Zarqawi’s 2003 tiny al-Tawhid group only morphed into Daesh and took substantial territory because W. invaded Iraq, abolished the Iraqi army, put the Shiites in power and created a power vacuum.

Jeb Bush also praised the “surge” or troop escalation of 2007 when W. put an extra 30,000 soldiers into Iraq. The Washington myth is that this campaign turned the war around. But actually the US forces under Gen. David Petraeus made a deal with then (Shiite) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to disarm the Sunni militants first. They did that, and the Mahdi Army and Badr Corps militias promptly ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from Baghdad, turning it into a largely Shiite city.

The displaced and desperate Sunnis, filled with rage and grievances against the US and its Shiite allies, gradually turned to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq, and then after 2011 became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL. That is, rather than being the great success Jeb painted it, the “surge” was the origins of the collapse of Iraq.

The allegation that President Obama could have kept 10,000 US troops in Iraq after December 2011 is untrue. The Bush administration was the one that failed to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi parliament that would allow US troops to remain. It failed because there was no majority in the Iraqi parliament for such an idea. The Iraqis never wanted US troops in their country, something Washington won’t admit. All Obama did was acquiesce in Bush’s deal. Vice President Joe Biden was tasked with seeing if an adjustment could be made whereby US troops might remain, but Biden also could not put together a majority in the Iraqi parliament. (It was felt that US troops and commanders would be at risk of prosecution, either in Iraqi courts or international ones, unless the Iraqi parliament itself passed the SOFA as a treaty commitment; it wasn’t something the prime minister could do by fiat).

The Iraqi parliament consisted of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Shiite, pro-Iran), the Sadr II Bloc or Free Ones (Ahrar) (fundamentalist Shiite), the Islamic Call or Islamic Mission Party (Da’wa — fundamentalist lay Shiite), the Iraqiya Party (supported by Sunni Arabs with a grudge against the US); and the Kurdistan Alliance. Only the KA might have voted for US troops to remain. The rest of the members of parliament were dead set against or at least couldn’t show their faces in their districts if they didn’t oppose it. No one has ever been able to show me where a majority existed in parliament for US troops staying in Iraq. People who make this argument are robbing Iraqis of any agency in their own destiny and discounting them in Orientalist style as easily manipulable by the US. They aren’t.

Moreover, 10,000 US troops in Iraq after 2011 would have been constantly targeted by Sunni guerrillas and Shiite militias, and would have been too small to defend themselves very well. They certainly would not have been stationed in any numbers in Mosul! That an imperial presence of this sort, what Iraqis call an “Occupation,” would have calmed things down and kept Mosul in Iraq is just a fantastic idea. It is like saying that if only there had been a few more British troops billeted in American homes in the 13 colonies in 1775, the American Revolution could have been put down and averted. It was things like billeting British troops in people’s homes that provoked the revolution in the first place!

Jeb Bush’s maiden voyage into foreign policy was painful to watch, a hodgepodge of exaggerated bogeymen, vague ideals, inaccurate assertions, and bad history. Oh. Where have we seen this combination of tropes before? Let me think. …

Juan Cole recently appeared on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” to discuss Jeb Bush’s speech. You can watch the video below or on the MSNBC website by clicking on this link.

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