To the talking heads who though Jeb Bush would have a problem with his brother’s record, to the other GOP candidates who thought they could slough by on talking points on foreign policy and to the pundits who thought Jeb Bush was “rusty,” I would suggest they watch the question-and-answer portion of his appearance today in Chicago in which he fluidly traversed the globe, analyzed issues, criticize the president and showed no hesitancy to depart from his brother’s views.
The speech itself was nearly identical to one given to a Cuban-America group in early December. Operating without a teleprompter his delivery was less sing-songy than his last major address but he seemed to rush through it — perhaps eager to get to the questions. In the speech he slammed the president for not seeking to prevent Iran’s nuclear weapons project but to “regulate it,” for a failed Russian “reset” and for letting Vladimir Putin run amok. He then was careful to sketch out his own personal foreign policy experiences — 15 trade missions as governor (boasting about an Israeli trade deal signed by Ariel Sharon), five trips to Israel, multiple trips to Asia, and years living in Venezuela. He acknowledged his brother’s and father’s presidencies but made a convincing case that each president “learns from presidents who came before.” He emphasized, “I love my brother. I love my dad…And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make. But I am my own man – and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.” He boldly defended the NSA’s metadata collection as an outstanding program that should be continued.
In his speech he set out several principles: Economic growth must gird our superpower status; a president’s words must match his actions (he included condemnation of leaks and insults attacking Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed eagerness to hear the prime minister’s speech); our word must be backed up by military force (although he was vague on the level of funding and whether he would countenance a tax hike to get it); weakness invites war; the U.S. should be determined to eliminate “asymmetric forces” which he labeled as violent, Islamic terrorism; and liberty diplomacy (interesting to use that phrase and not the “freedom agenda” and to use the example of defending South Korea, not the Arab Spring). As to the latter he observed that when we support democracies, “We do it for them, and do it for ourselves.”
He said simply we need to “tighten the noose and take out” the Islamic State.
It was however in the question-and-answer session when he dazzled with the depth and breadth of his knowledge and his ability to calmly converse on a range of topics. On Iraq, he said candidly mistakes were made in believing there were weapons of mass destruction and in failing to provide adequate security after Saddam Hussein was removed, but lauded his brother as “heroic” in supporting the surge. On the tension between human rights and self-interest, he noted that we need a balance and that democracy is more than just elections, citing Hamas (an implicit criticism of the Palestinian elections in 2006 while his brother was president that included the terrorist group) and phony elections under Hugo Chavez. (How many other GOP hopefuls know there were any Palestinian elections in 2006? They better read up.) On Cuba, he called it just “bad negotiating” in that we gave away the store while getting nothing at the time Cuba was potentially vulnerable because Venezuela oil is now at $45 per barrel. He twice made the analogy to Iran, arguing that we wrongly “don’t put too many conditions” on dictatorships and just hope they come around. He commended the Latin American countries which embraced market capitalism and praised the Colombia recovery plan (whose name he could only recall in Spanish) as a model for others in the region. He said that we got Egypt wrong “three times” (presumably in supporting Hosni Mubarak too long, embracing the Muslim Brotherhood government and now failing to support the Sisi government sufficiently). He drew attention to General Sisi’s recent speech calling for Muslims to deal with cancerous radical jihadism in their midst.
No one could have watched that performance and come away with the sense he is rusty, unprepared or hesitant about projecting American power. Plainly he is prepared to rip the Obama-Clinton foreign policy to shreds and articulate a robust vision of American leadership. There are specifics to be fleshed out. How much should we spend on defense? What would he do if he inherited a rotten P5+1 deal from the Obama White House? What should we do about our relationship with Pakistan? But these are details that can be worked out later. For now, he has set the bar high for GOP hopefuls on national security. If they want to beat him and be able to stand opposite Hillary Clinton and dissect her errors the way he did they had better study hard and do some serious thinking. Otherwise Bush will eat their lunch in the debates.
UPDATE: An earlier version stated that Jeb’s remark about the 2006 Palestinian election was an implicit criticism of his brother who “pushed for Palestinian elections.” His actual words were ambiguous as to the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for the elections: “This is a problem of presidents past as well in all honesty, that we view, if you have an election, you’re a democracy. Chavez had an election and used it to steal freedom in Venezuela. Hamas had an election. Hezbollah competes. These groups are not supportive of democracy. They use the election process to take away freedom from people.”