Jeb Bush’s first foray into foreign policy as a presidential hopeful grabbed headlines for the way he handled the legacy of his father’s and his brother’s foreign policy. Speaking to those gathered at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Bush assured the audience that, family ties notwithstanding, “I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own principles.”
Whether the electorate chooses to see Bush as “his own man” and view his bid for the White House without revisiting the presidencies of Bush 41 and 43 will be the defining feature of Jeb’s run. Last week’s speech was significant because it allowed Bush to frame his foreign-policy views on his own terms. As the race for the White House picks up steam over the coming months, and other candidates unpack what will inevitably be “Bush family baggage,” Jeb Bush won’t have the luxury of neatly placing himself close enough to benefit from the family’s political aristocracy without being burned by the family’s political vicissitudes of the recent past.
So for the time being, it’s worth evaluating how Bush fared on his own terms. While the delivery was rough and stumbly — we can probably expect teleprompters in the near future — the content hit themes that almost all Republican candidates are likely to emphasize: attack President Obama’s handling of Iran and mistreatment of Israel; articulate a foreign policy that blends notions of American exceptionalism, values, and strength without coming across as interventionist; reverse the cuts to military budgets and rebuild American strength; and restore American leadership in the world while bemoaning how the Obama administration has left America less influential.
Taken as a whole, these points hit the mark, and Bush is correct to highlight them. But perhaps the most interesting part of the speech was Jeb’s brief biographical sketch of how his foreign-policy views were shaped and defined, and how — as he argues — their development provides him with the experience necessary to be president. Bush took the audience back to when he was a young banker living in Venezuela with his wife and baby in the late 1970s. He recalled how Venezuela joined the non-aligned movement and how anti-Americanism spread across the Western Hemisphere. At one point, Bush said he came of age politically during the Carter era, a period of malaise often thought to be analogous to the state of affairs today. Bush also made reference to his tenure as governor of Florida, his trips to Israel and other trade missions, and his active involvement in border security and immigration. If there was one moment in the speech where Bush was indeed his own man, this was it.
But the question is whether Bush’s résumé — impressive as it may be — is the résumé the country will need in January 2017. Viewing America from the outside during the 1970s, as Jeb Bush did, may rhyme with today’s challenges, but that era is not nearly the same as today.
America since September 11 — an event Bush never mentioned in his speech — has seen two radically different presidents, particularly as commanders-in-chief. Bush 43 led the global war on terrorism, whereas President Obama has defined his presidency by seeking to end that war. To be sure, Jeb Bush discussed ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other forms of radical Islam, but his critique of the Obama administration extended only to a failed strategy, a failure to understand the threat, and a failure to lead. This critique failed to get to the root cause of Obama’s foreign policy — since Day One in office, the Obama administration has been blinded by its compulsion to be the antithesis of Bush 43. This gross overcorrection has been the driving force behind Obama’s foreign policy and has led to the parade of ills that Jeb Bush and every other Republican presidential hopeful will outline over the next two years.
But to get to the core of the problem, to get the American people to internalize how harmful Obama’s presidency has been to American security, one has to revisit the recent past. One must link the rise of ISIS with the abandonment of Iraq, the invasion of Ukraine with the Russian-reset policy, the draconian cuts to the military with the decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the willingness to make concessions to Iran rather than threaten the use of force. Bush laments how, under President Obama, words do not match action, but he doesn’t confront the specious claim of the current White House that action would invite another Iraq. To be the next commander-in-chief, one must wrestle with the post-9/11 policies of Bush 43 and the dramatic reversal of those policies during the Obama years.
Jeb Bush may yet be up to that challenge, but his speech last week revealed that he believes he can run for office without taking a stand on how the eight years of Bush 43 and (soon to be) eight years of Obama have resulted in a nation divided over its role in the world and paralyzed by the challenges we face today. Bush is correct when he says that new circumstances require new approaches, but, as any good conservative knows, a promising future does not come from shunning the past.
— Roger Zakheim is an attorney, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former deputy staff director and general counsel on the House Armed Services Committee. Follow him on Twitter @Rogerreuv.