If Jeb Bush is elected president, the United States won’t be on speaking terms with Cuba and will partner more closely with Israel. He’ll tighten sanctions on Iran and urge NATO to deploy more troops in Eastern Europe to counter Vladimir Putin. And he’ll order the U.S. military to root out “barbarians” and “evildoers” around the globe.
Far from running from or playing down the views once expressed by his brother George W. Bush, Jeb Bush is embracing them — and emphasizing them.
It is clear when he calls for closer engagement with Arab leaders to combat the growing threat of the Islamic State. Or when he criticizes President Obama for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. It is most apparent when he refers to “evildoers” — a formulation used widely by his brother — and argues that the United States needs to engage but doesn’t have to be “the world’s policeman,” a view voiced by his brother that was also embraced by their father, George H.W. Bush.
“We now have a president — the first one, I believe, in the post-World War II era — that believes that America’s power is not appropriate and America’s presence is not a force for good,” Jeb Bush told a crowd of business leaders in Columbus, Ohio, this week. “He’s wrong. With all due respect, he is just plain wrong.”
“America needs to lead. America needs to stay engaged,” he added. “America’s friends need to know that we have their back over the long haul, and our enemies need to fear us a little bit.”
Bush’s views put him squarely in the middle of GOP consensus on foreign affairs — a consensus that formed as his brother reshaped U.S. engagement with the world. But by endorsing some of his brother’s views, he puts himself at odds with most Americans, who remain wary of the two wars launched during the last Bush presidency.
Even George W. Bush admits he’s a political liability. Speaking at a health conference in Chicago on Wednesday night, he told the crowd, “That’s why you won’t see me out there, and he doesn’t need to defend me,” before adding that he loves and supports his brother, according to reports of the speech.
In recent years, nearly 6 in 10 Americans have believed that the Iraq war was not worth fighting, though Republicans have been slightly more supportive, according to polling by The Washington Post and other organizations. In more recent years, public opinion has similarly turned against the war in Afghanistan.
He is not officially a candidate, but Bush has gone far beyond perfunctory criticism of Obama, thanks to his frequent engagement with voters, the press and a brain trust of nearly two dozen experts.
“Bush’s criticisms of Obama’s policies are pretty much what you would expect. ‘Not’ — as Jerry Seinfeld might have said — ‘that there is anything wrong with that,’ ” said Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
But Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor of political science who once advised George W. Bush on Iraq, noted that, so far, Jeb Bush “doesn’t feel that he has to emphasize differences with the previous Presidents Bush. But he’s not insecure about it or defensive about it — he doesn’t list 20 things that he would do differently.”
As Bush prepares to launch a presidential campaign, he is calling upon his personal experiences abroad and a growing cast of advisers well versed in global conflicts.
He likes to remind crowds that he lived in Caracas, Venezuela, in the late 1970s when he was a vice president for Texas Commerce Bank. He lived in the city’s Santa Rosa de Lima neighborhood with his wife, Columba, his son, George, and his daughter, Noelle. (Their third child, Jeb Bush Jr., was born later.)
Bush has also said he has “forced” himself to visit Asia several times in recent years. While declining to provide specific destinations and dates, aides said that he has traveled to Asia 14 times since leaving the governor’s office in 2007, including several times to China, with other stops in Japan, South Korea and Singapore. He never visited China when his father, George H.W. Bush, was top U.S. envoy there, because Columba Bush was pregnant at the time with their first son, George P. Bush.
Early in the exploratory phase of his likely campaign, Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign policy advisory team that reflects the disparate views of GOP thinking on the world. The group includes two former secretaries of state, George P. Shultz and James A. Baker III; two former CIA directors, Porter J. Goss and Michael V. Hayden; former attorney general Michael Mukasey; and Paul Wolfowitz, a former deputy defense secretary and a lead architect of the Iraq war. Several other lower-level officials from both Bush administrations are also members.
Several members of the group declined to comment for this article or did not respond to inquiries. Aides said Bush frequently interacts with group members directly via e-mail — just how he interacted with advisers as Florida governor.
He has hired two staffers, Robert S. Karem and John Noonan, to help develop his foreign policy platform and keep in touch with the bigger group. Most recently, Karem was a top policy adviser to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), while Noonan was a spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee after advising Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign on defense policy.
In speeches, meetings with voters and interviews across the country, Bush usually faults Obama for his “consistent policy of pullback and retrenchment.”
“It’s not that we necessarily have to be the world’s policeman,” he told a crowd in Denver last week. The country needs “a consistent policy where our friends know that we have their back and our enemies fear us a little bit — or our possible enemies believe that the United States will act in its own security interest.”
During a recent interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Bush accused Obama of withdrawing U.S. military troops around the world because he felt that “American power in the world was not a force for good.”
“What he’s learning is that voids are filled,” he added. “And now they’re filled not necessarily by nation-states. They’re filled by barbarians. They’re filled by nation-states using surrogates. They’re filled by evildoers that now have technologies at their fingertips to be able to undermine not just the neighborhood in which they are, but undermine the world.”
He is especially concerned by Russia’s Putin, who he told Hewitt is “a ruthless pragmatist” who “tries to undermine or underwrite the risk on every action he takes.” To counter Putin’s threats against the Baltic states, Bush said last month, Obama should consider invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies.
“I think there needs to be clarity in Moscow that we’re serious about protecting the one alliance that has created enormous amounts of security and peace in the post-World War II time,” he said, adding later that “if we’re not serious about Article 5, then we ought to have shut down NATO. And I think shutting down NATO would be a disaster.”
Bush’s comments came on the same day that a U.S. Army squadron was completing a 1,100-mile tour de force through six Eastern European countries after completing a months-long training exercise with Polish forces.
On Iran, Bush has repeatedly argued that Obama “negotiated downward” from his original goal of stopping the Iranian regime from building a nuclear weapon. He strongly opposed the framework agreement recently brokered by the United States and Iran.
“By creating this perpetual negotiation . . . we’re lowering what our expectations are and the Iranians are doing nothing in return,” he said last week in Denver, just days after the agreement was announced.
When it comes to Iraq, Bush is mostly supportive of his brother’s legacy there.
“There were mistakes in Iraq for sure,” he said during a speech in Chicago in February. “Using the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction, it turns out to not be accurate.”
But in that appearance, he also called the 2007 Iraq troop “surge” “one of the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done.”
“It was hugely successful and created a stability that when the new president came in, he could build on to create a fragile but more stable situation,” he said.
Bush has said repeatedly that Obama’s decision to withdraw forces from the region further destabilized Iraq and neighboring Syria and led to the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group.
The situation in Syria has “been made worse by actually not having a . . . small contingency force in Iraq, where we’ve had similar to Korea and other places where having a small contingency force would have allowed some degree of stability to take place,” he said in Columbus, adding, “Now those voids are being filled by this Islamic terrorist threat. . . . So our pulling back, it precipitated part of this problem.”
That point is strongly disputed by Obama, who told Vice News last month that the Islamic State “is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion. Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.”
Undeterred by public opinion polls that suggest his views are not shared by a majority of voters, Bush believes that global events might prompt Americans to eventually embrace his thinking. During an appearance in San Francisco in January, he accused Obama of exploiting America’s war fatigue to justify withdrawing U.S. military forces abroad.
“When you start beheading Americans in far-off lands because a void was created because we pulled back, guess what — people’s attitudes change about that pretty darn quick,” he said. “You can’t run foreign policy as a leader by following the polls. You have to persuade the American people — even if it is tough for them because of the economic situation — that we have to be engaged in the world.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated what part of Eastern Europe Bush was referring to when discussing the use of NATO’s Article 5 treaty.