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Trying to condemn the war in Ukraine, Bush inadvertently calls Iraq war unjustified

Former President George W. Bush has made a number of verbal gaffes over his career in politics.
George W. Bush Presidential Center/ Screengrab by NPR by NPR
Former President George W. Bush has made a number of verbal gaffes over his career in politics.

Former President George W. Bush was criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday when his old nemesis, the verbal slip, struck again. Bush eventually condemned Putin's invasion of Ukraine — but not before he condemned "a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq."

Bush was drawing a parallel between how countries conduct elections and their stance toward other nations when his tongue went rogue.

"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," Bush said.

"Iraq... anyway," he said with a shake of his head, as members of the audience chuckled. He then cited his age, 75, before returning to his speech.

Bush was speaking to an audience at his presidential library in Dallas, Texas, at an event focused on the importance of ensuring free, fair and secure elections, aiming to bolster voters' confidence in U.S. elections. But the former president's verbal gaffe quickly drew notice on social media and in headlines.

In 2003, Bush led the U.S. into an invasion and war in Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction and was working toward a nuclear weapon. No evidence of such threats was found in the country. Members of his administration have insisted they were acting on faulty intelligence.

In Thursday's speech, Bush was comparing the free and fair election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Putin's suppression of his political opponents.

He also said he recently spoke to Zelenskyy via Zoom, declaring the Ukrainian leader to be a "cool little guy — the Churchill of the 21st century."

Bush has famously been a wellspring of malapropisms, even prompting the term "Bushisms" and sparking research into slips of the tongue. His latest high-profile foray into mangled speech adds to what is shaping up as an odd return to the early 2000s, when news outlets tracked Britney Spears and reported on the Taliban's rule of Afghanistan.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 18, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Britney Spears' name.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.