Charleston, S.C. — It wasn’t supposed to happen this way for Jeb Bush.
The presidential candidate whose campaign was to be anchored by talk of economic mobility — and who so often insists he’s his “own man,” endeavoring to escape the shadows of his brother and father — found himself calling for the deployment of American combat troops to the Middle East Wednesday, embracing a family legacy he was determined to transcend.
Gone was the gentleman who craves a wonkish campaign about education and taxes and entitlement programs, a person so determined to forge his own political identity that he long ago scrubbed his last name from campaign signs. In his place Wednesday stood someone so emboldened by global tumult that he unapologetically endorsed a notion his own allies have long thought could be politically suicidal — American military intervention in a region shaped by a quarter-century of complicated family history.
“The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force,” Bush told a roomful of cadets, military officials, and civilians here at The Citadel military college. The scope of America’s ground presence, he said, “should be in line with what our military generals recommend” as “necessary to achieve our objective.”
The announcement was an ironic twist in the story of Bush’s bizarre presidential campaign, with the onetime front-runner seizing on the issue his campaign least wanted to confront and using it to distinguish him from his competitors for the Republican nomination.
‘The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force.’
— Jeb Bush
The former Florida governor sought to blunt any perception of a third Bush going blindly — or unilaterally — into the world’s most volatile region, and he suggested that he’d learned from the mistakes of his father and brother. Unlike George H. W. Bush, who hustled out of Iraq and left Saddam Hussein in power after the Gulf War, Jeb Bush advocated an open-ended commitment and pledged to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Unlike George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq without significant commitments from a diverse coalition of allies or a blueprint for post-Hussein governance, Jeb Bush promised sweeping bilateral support and spoke of political solutions to ensure a stable transition of power.
These points were subtle yet critical in Bush’s attempt to distinguish his approach from those of his famous relatives, even as they were negated by his rhetoric. If anything, the candidate’s worldview seems to align closer with that of his brother, the willing hawk, than his father, the reluctant interventionist. Bush told radio host Hugh Hewitt in February that he “wouldn’t be conflicted by any legacy issues of my family” when it comes to waging war in the Middle East. But in tone and substance, he came across Wednesday as someone who would have proposed such military action months ago if his last name were Smith.
It was a watershed moment for Bush, one in which he appeared to achieve some catharsis by willingly dispelling the daylight he had sought to establish between himself and his brother. With this speech, he’s now allowing voters to consider his candidacy in the dynastic terms he has long labored to avoid.
It’s a scenario he could not have envisioned even a week ago.
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Bush’s trip to The Citadel was conceived in the broadest possible context of Pentagon cuts and unrest overseas. He had spent months prescribing a set of cautious policies for weakening ISIS and stabilizing the Middle East — increasing air strikes, creating safe zones, arming the Kurds — and he planned to reiterate those ideas here while also revealing a detailed blueprint for rebuilding the armed forces.
But Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris prompted an urgent reevaluation. On Saturday, Bush instructed staffers to begin revising his remarks, and by the time he arrived here late Tuesday night, the theme of his address had been drastically altered. So, too, had his thinking on military intervention in the Middle East. Air strikes alone would not suffice. Bush had decided American ground troops would be needed – and without delay.
“While air power is essential, it alone cannot bring the results we seek,” Bush said Wednesday. “The United States — in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners — will need to increase our presence on the ground.”
Bush would not specify a number of American troops or the areas where he might deploy them. He emphasized that “local forces” would form the majority of his proposed coalition — a lesson learned, perhaps, from the Iraq War, in which Sunni militias did not play a significant role until the Surge of 2007. But Bush left the clear impression that as president he would order a significant number of U.S. soldiers into combat.
He did so without visible reticence or reservation; there was no stammering or slouching on this occasion. To the contrary, the man who has struggled to project authority throughout his campaign stood tall and spoke forcefully here in front of several hundred uniformed cadets, auditioning unapologetically as their future commander-in-chief.
“During our time, some of you will be called upon to undertake dangerous missions to protect that freedom and defeat the evil we face today,” Bush said. “And it would be my mission that should you be sent into harm’s way, that you be given every tool to wage war with lethal force and efficiency.”
“You would have the support from Washington that you have from the American people, led by a president who is resolute, as I will be, in the defeat of radical Islamic terrorism wherever it appears.”
#share#If the Paris attacks effectively reset the presidential race, bringing national security to the fore and placing fresh scrutiny on candidates’ grasp of foreign policy, they seemed also to refocus Bush. His lieutenants have long attributed to him the important-yet-intangible quality of being “presidential,” only to watch him appear meek and passive under the brightest lights. But on a two-day swing through South Carolina, he looked, talked, and carried himself like a different candidate, one in command of the issues and aggressive in pitching himself as the most qualified candidate to lead the country — and the world — in troubled times.
With the Republican field largely taking a reactive posture to recent events in Europe and the Middle East, Bush seized the opportunity to differentiate himself and, his aides believe, stick his neck out: first on Tuesday by refusing to support an outright ban on Syrian refugees, and then Wednesday by declaring the need for an immediate U.S. ground presence to combat ISIS.
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Bush and his campaign understand the gravity of the latter proposition, and the context in which it will be considered: another Bush calling for another deployment of ground troops to wage war in another Middle East conflict. (Bush told two young cadets afterward to watch the news coverage of his speech, predicting that his advocacy of American combat troops would be panned because of his last name.)
But Bush, who has long called for embedding U.S. Special Forces with allied Arab fighters, also recognized that he could no longer afford to nibble around the edges. And when the decision was made to go bigger and bolder, Bush’s team knew there would be no better place to announce it than here at The Citadel.
Not only would Bush speak to a military crowd in a famously pro-military state; he would also be addressing an audience composed overwhelmingly of teenagers, heads shaven and high-school degrees recently earned, who would not process his words through the filter of his family history. Most of the cadets were in elementary school when George W. Bush left office, and in kindergarten when he ordered the invasion of Iraq. Several claimed to have no recollection whatsoever of September 11, 2001. None were alive when George H. W. Bush initiated Operation Desert Storm.
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And yet they know enough to appreciate the prestige of the Bush name — once viewed as Jeb Bush’s chief liability, and perhaps now his strongest asset as he struggles to get back to double digits in national polls. Officers buzzed in the afternoon about their pre-dawn jog with Bush from the parade grounds; cadets swarmed him after the speech asking for selfies and autographs. All of this made for excellent promotional material and was captured accordingly by hovering cameramen employed by Bush’s campaign and super PAC.
The Citadel is accustomed to welcoming presidential hopefuls. But cadets who said they had skipped speeches earlier this year from other GOP candidates — Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry among them — joined the crowd spilling over into a standing-room-only section in back of the auditorium to catch a glimpse of the would-be next President Bush.
Those who had heard from his opponents said Bush’s speech, against the backdrop of last week’s attacks in Paris, carried a distinct sense of urgency.
Those who had heard from his opponents said Bush’s speech, against the backdrop of last week’s attacks in Paris, carried a distinct sense of urgency. He did not mince words, impressing upon them that if he was elected, they would find themselves on the front lines of the fight. The cadets, for their part, seemed energized by it.
Keelan Kane-Yearman, an 18-year-old from nearby Sumter, S.C., had an extended dialogue with Bush amid the crush of cadets elbowing for face time. He said he told Bush that he will be ready to serve and that he agrees with Bush’s call for combat troops.
“When I turn on the news and see the atrocities ISIS is committing, it alarms me,” Kane-Yearman says. “As an American and as a patriot, I want to do something about it.”
“This is my future. This is what I signed up for,” 19-year-old Eric Larsen, a native of Pensacola, Fla., says after Bush’s speech. “Whatever’s necessary to get the job done, I’ll do it.”
Chris Woods, a 19-year-old from Johns Creek, Ga., echoes that sentiment: “Whatever means are necessary to defeat the threat of ISIS – if Governor Bush thinks we need boots on the ground in the Middle East, that’s why I’m here.”
Woods says he understands the implications of such military action. His father, a Citadel graduate and former Navy Special Forces operative, retired into the reserves in 2000 — only to be called up to active duty after 9/11 and shipped overseas for a one-year tour. Woods was five at the time and says he heard debates in the ensuing years about George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. But his father was “committed to following the orders of his commander-in-chief,” he says, and now he has pledged he’d do the same.
#related#In running for president not eight years removed from George W. Bush’s polarizing presidency, Jeb Bush has attempted to distance himself from his brother. He has had some success on domestic policy, arguing that his brother’s administration lacked fiscal discipline. But on matters of national security — such as his fumbling response to the question of whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing what we know now, and his decision to populate his team of foreign-policy advisers with veterans of the two Bush administrations — it has become apparent that Jeb Bush’s worldview is not very different from the last Republican president’s.
That reality was thrown into sharp relief Wednesday. On this campus, at this event, making these remarks, Bush bore a striking resemblance to the 43rd president — a parallel inadvertently reinforced by an introductory video, shown before Jeb’s speech, of his brother addressing cadets here in 2001.
“In all that is to come, I know that the graduates of The Citadel bring credit to America, the military, and to this great institution,” George W. Bush said in the clip. “In the words of your school song, you will go where you’ve always gone — ‘on the paths our fathers showed us. Peace and honor, God and country, we will fight for three.’”
In that speech, delivered three months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush 43 told his soon-to-be-warriors that he understood the weight of what they would encounter:
Many of you will enter our military, taking your place in the war against terror. That struggle may continue for many years, and it may bring great costs. But you will have chosen a great calling at a crucial hour for our nation. Our cause is necessary. Our cause is just. And no matter how long it takes, we will defeat the enemies of freedom.
Fourteen years and several unfinished wars later, with the Middle East as tumultuous as ever and American sentiment shifting toward another intervention abroad, his younger brother offered an identical message to a new class of cadets.
“Let there be no doubt, this will not be easy. Some of you in this room will serve on the front lines of that fight against ISIS and against radical Islamic terrorism,” Bush said Wednesday.
“You will sign up for an uncertain fate, on foreign fields of battle, because your country — and the cause of freedom — are calling you.”
— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.