CHICAGO — Former Florida governor Jeb Bush on Wednesday promised to chart his own course on foreign policy — even as he announced a campaign brain trust associated, in part, with the most contentious policies of his brother’s and father’s presidencies.
In a speech before the nonpartisan Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Bush stepped delicately into territory where the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and the 43rd, George W. Bush, still loom large.
The man expected to become the third Bush to make a bid for the White House said he has been “fortunate” to have two family members “who both have shaped America’s foreign policy from the Oval Office.”
“I recognize that as a result, my views will often be held up in comparison to theirs,” Jeb Bush said. “But I am my own man.” He added that his approach to geopolitics would be shaped by “my own thinking and my own experiences.”
In his prepared remarks, Bush mentioned Iraq, where his father and brother waged wars, only in passing — including once by mistake, when he meant to say Iran.
But in a question-and-answer session afterward, Bush addressed the troubled conflict in Iraq during his brother’s administration. “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure,” he said.
A key premise for the second Iraq war was the assumption, based on information compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency, that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. That turned out to “not be accurate,” Bush said.
The threat of Iran as a nuclear power is “the defining foreign policy issue of our time,” Bush contended, arguing that the Obama administration has shown itself “unequal to the task.”
“The great irony of the Obama presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential in the world,” he said.
Meanwhile, the 21 names announced by his campaign-in-waiting as supporters and advisers on foreign policy did not provide much indication of what direction Bush would take.
The list represents the full spectrum of views within the Republican foreign policy establishment — from relative moderates, including former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and James A. Baker III, to staunch neoconservatives such as Iraq war architect Paul D. Wolfowitz.
“This is more about putting together a list than a signal of direction for Bush,” said James Mann, an author-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who has written two books about George W. Bush’s foreign policy team.
One Republican who is well known in foreign policy circles offered this assessment: “That list of advisers screams mush. It’s trying to be everything to everybody.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has long relationships with many who are on the list.
The one exception, Mann said, was on the question of intelligence policy, where the list suggested that Bush would not change course. Among Bush’s announced advisers are several viewed as staunch defenders of the CIA, including former director Michael V. Hayden, who came under heavy criticism in a recent Senate Intelligence Committee report about the agency’s interrogation techniques.
Just as telling were those missing from the official list.
Although former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is at least as close personally to the Bush family as anyone on the list — and has consulted with the former Florida governor — the absence of her name suggests that he is sensitive about being seen as a carbon copy of his brother.
Having a broad phalanx of advisers could help Bush, who is presumed to be the GOP establishment front-runner, fend off efforts by other Republican contenders to position themselves to his right on foreign policy. He already faces the challenge of winning over the party’s conservative base, given his relatively moderate positions on issues such as immigration and his strong support for the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic benchmarks that has been adopted in most states but has drawn increasing criticism.
Many in both major parties expect national security to loom as a larger concern for voters in 2016 than it did in the past few presidential elections.
But even as he made an effort to demonstrate his fluency on the issue, Bush made a few flubs. He mocked Obama for having dismissed the Islamic State organization as “the junior varsity four days after they took Fallujah and when they comprised a fighting force of more than 200,000 battle-tested men.”
His spokeswoman later clarified that the former governor misspoke and that the actual number was closer to 20,000.
Efforts to reach nearly all of those on the list — described as “a preliminary and informal group” of supporters that Bush will consult — elicited little response.
Baker said in an e-mailed statement that “I fully support Jeb Bush for president and am confident that when he is elected, he will do an excellent job leading our nation’s foreign policy, just as his father did.”
Stephen J. Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush, declined to discuss his presence on the list, except to say, “I look forward like everyone else should to hearing the governor’s speech on Wednesday.” An assistant to former attorney general Michael B. Mukasey said, after speaking with him, that he was “unavailable” for comment about Jeb Bush. Several of those contacted said via e-mail or through assistants that they were traveling overseas.
Hayden e-mailed that there was “not much to talk about . . . so far.”
Of the handful who responded to queries, only Otto Reich, a Latin America expert who served in both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, offered a substantive comment on his relationship with the former governor.
“The reason I’m supporting Jeb is because I’ve known him for over 30 years,” said Reich, who said he readily agreed when asked whether he was willing to be included on the Bush list. “I don’t think he needs any advice, frankly, at least as far as the part of the world I’m familiar with. . . . The first thing he would do is he would pay attention to it.”
In his speech, Bush delivered a message similar to one he offered in December when he addressed the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC in Miami. The group is strongly opposed to Obama’s proposed changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Speaking just a few blocks north of where Obama celebrated his historic 2008 election with supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park, Bush suggested on Wednesday that the president had squandered an opportunity to recast the United States’ role in the world.
“Our words and actions must match so that the entire world knows that we say what we mean and mean what we say,” he said. “There should be no gap there. This administration talks, but the words fade. They draw red lines and then erase them. With grandiosity, they announce resets and then disengage.”
But Bush credited Obama for his plans to deploy U.S. military forces to the Baltic states to help counter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and his plans to develop a new economic and military partnership with Central American countries that have seen citizens flee to the United States.
The White House announced on Wednesday that Vice President Biden plans to visit Guatemala next month to continue talks with regional leaders.
Bush’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy is a familiar one within his party. But he also called for renewed engagement with traditional global alliances, including NATO and European allies.
About his experiences, Bush cited time spent living and working in Caracas, Venezuela, as a bank official in the late 1970s, when, he recalled, diapers cost $1 each and his home had running water briefly just three times a day. He also said he has traveled broadly since serving as governor and has “forced myself to visit Asia four times a year” to learn about the region’s burgeoning economies.
While in Chicago, Bush was also poised to raise about $4 million for his leadership PAC and a super PAC he launched ahead of his presidential campaign. His supporters said Bush has secured the backing of at least 80 percent of big-dollar donors in Illinois.
Tumulty reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung contributed to this story.