Jeb Bush delivered the inevitable “I am my own man” line in his first major foreign policy speech as a pre-presidential candidate on Wednesday. But the former Florida governor did little to say exactly how he would lead the U.S. differently than his presidential father or brother. Perhaps more important, Bush’s stated foreign policy platform does little to differentiate himself from the rest of the GOP field of candidates, or President Barack Obama.
That could prove troublesome for the perceived front-runner in a campaign where national security and American leadership in global conflicts is expected to remain a central theme. While Bush repeated many of the Republican talking-point criticisms of Obama’s leadership as being too slow or soft from the Islamic State to Russia and Iran, what positions Bush did lay out – especially regarding military intervention in the Middle East – sounded nearly identical to what the Obama administration already is doing.
“For the record, one more time, I love my father and my brother,” Bush said Wednesday at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, speaking of his father, President George H.W. Bush, and elder brother, President George W. Bush. “But I am my own man — and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.”
“Each president learns from those who came before — their principles, their adjustments,” Bush said. “One thing we know is this: Every president inherits a changing world, and changing circumstances.”
The foreign policy albatross of his father and brother’s presidencies — which no other candidate has to manage like he does — has dogged Bush’s soon-to-be 2016 campaign. “My views will often be held up in comparison to theirs — and a great fascinating thing in the political world, for some reason, sometimes in contrast to theirs,” Bush quipped Wednesday. But despite that scoff at political press, Bush, in name and substance, remains in the shadow of both his brother’s unpopular foreign policies – particularly the Iraq War — and also his father’s legacy, now nearly 20-years past, including his leadership through the Persian Gulf War.
The Bush wars weigh heavy on the early momentum of Jeb Bush’s candidacy, threatening to undermine an impressive fundraising haul and campaign infrastructure that already froze out his biggest challenge for the nomination, Mitt Romney. As an illustration, Bush’s infrastructure includes a list of 21 advisors — 19 of which served in either his father’s or brother’s administration.
And now the U.S. is more than six months deep into what is promised to be a years-long war in the Middle East, to be inherited by whoever follows Obama into the White House. The war against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and the debate over presidential powers to wage perpetual war in the new age of terrorism present Bush an immediate and important test to explain how he’d do things differently. But he indicated in his wide-ranging address that his response to the rise of the Islamic State wouldn’t differ dramatically from the talking points being trotted out by a full field of GOP presidential contenders. His positions sounded familiar to those employed by Republicans in the last two elections against Obama, in which they relied on a retread of generic “stronger on defense” rhetoric but struggled to distinguish their policies from the Democrat’s.
Bush’s answer for how to deal with the Islamic State: “tighten the noose, then take them out,” sounded similar to the current “degrade and destroy” strategy of the Obama administration. “We need to create a coalition led by the United States but in total concert with the neighborhood,” he said. “There’s an attitude in the neighborhood that we’re gonna cut and run. This is a huge challenge for the president. Part of it is his own making, part of it is these trends that have existed for a long while.”
But Bush made sure to repeatedly use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” as conservatives have been demanding for weeks. “The more we try and ignore that reality, the less likely it is that we’re going to develop an effective strategy.”
On Iraq, Bush portrayed his brother’s war as a success later undone by Obama. “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure,” he said, but called the 2006 surge “one of the most heroic acts of courage politically than any president has done.”
“It created a stability that, when the new president came in, [Obama] could’ve built on…. That void has been filled because we created the void.”
As other potential GOP candidates already have done, Bush called for the U.S. to show greater strength on the global stage. “Everywhere you look you see the world slipping out of control,” Bush said. “The examples keep piling up — President Obama called ISIS the junior varsity four days after they took Fallujah,” Bush said. “He dismissed Russia as merely a regional power.”
“Under this administration, we are inconsistent and indecisive. We have lost the trust and the confidence of our friends. We definitely no longer inspire fear in our enemies.”
On Israel, Bush repeatedly argued that administration officials have fractured the U.S. relationship with Israel through contention with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. He called Iran “the defining foreign policy challenge of our time,” and criticized what he called a policy shift in the current nuclear talks to manage the problem, not solve it.
“The great irony of the Obama presidency is this,” he said. “Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential in the world.”
“Our words and actions must match so the entire world knows we say what we mean and mean what we say, there should be no gap there,” Bush said. The Obama administration, he said, “draw red lines, then erase them. With grandiosity, they announce resets and disengage. Hashtag campaigns replace actual diplomacy and engagement.”
What Bush called grandiose “resets” and “hashtag campaigns” was a swipe at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure in the administration.
On defense spending, Bush also sounded like past failed Republican candidates when he said current levels were “dangerous” because they represented “only” 2 percent of GDP – a metric heard in previous presidential campaigns that is rarely used in defense industry circles and frequently derided by budget watchdog groups for not reflecting actual U.S. firepower.
“I believe, fundamentally, that weakness invites war … and strength encourages peace,” Bush said. “America does not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world … we have no reason to apologize for our leadership, and our interest in serving the cause of global security, global peace and human freedom.”