But while the joke landed with some, many were quick to pounce on his verbal slip after nearly two decades of sharp criticism that Bush was unjustified in directing the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, with some lobbing accusations that the 43rd president is a war criminal — the same label some have given Putin after his invasion of Ukraine this year, which has been widely criticized by the international community as illegal and inhumane.
“I’m not laughing, and I am guessing nor are the families of the thousands of American troops and the millions of thousands of Iraqis who died in that war,” said Mehdi Hasan, a liberal commentator and cable news host, on “MSNBC Prime” on Wednesday night.
“How many Americans were sent to die by him for a lie? Disgusting,” tweeted conservative media personality Tim Young.
At least 200,000 civilians died as a result of “direct war-related violence” during the US invasion of Iraq, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, which noted that difficulties in measuring deaths accurately mean the toll was probably much higher.
Political consensus among many on the left and right has since moved to largely condemn the war, with many presidential hopefuls and other politicians nudged to say that they were then or are now against the Iraq invasion.
Even Bush’s brother Jeb, in a 2015 presidential debate, when asked by moderator Megyn Kelly whether “your brother’s war was a mistake,” said the invasion was wrong and based on “faulty intelligence.”
“Oof,” tweeted Justin Amash, a former congressman who left the Republican Party to become an independent, in reaction to the video of Bush’s gaffe.
“If you were George W. Bush, you think you’d just steer clear of giving any speech about one man launching a totally unjustified and brutal invasion,” he said.
“Welcome to the resistance,” G. Elliott Morris, a US correspondent for the Economist, joked on Twitter.
“George W. Bush is a war criminal,” tweeted former Ohio state senator Nina Turner.
Just before the slip-up, Bush — who at 75 blamed the gaffe on his age — had been comparing the leadership of Russia and Ukraine. He praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he called a “cool little guy” and “the Churchill of the 21st century,” the latter statement echoing one he made after the two met virtually this month.
As for Russia, he said that its elections are rigged and its political opponents imprisoned. “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia.”
The George W. Bush Presidential Center did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.