The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been feeling a bit guilty about the high level of Donald Trump content over the past week or so. Sure, he’s the GOP frontrunner, and he is, without question, a great driver of traffic. That said, Trump’s poll numbers are also starting to taper off, he’s not going to win the nomination anyway, and this is valuable space that could be devoted to paying attention to what serious candidates say about foreign policy.

That’s what I was telling myself… until I actually read Jeb Bush’s Big Foreign Policy Speech from a few nights ago. And, after reading it, I think Trump’s appeal to GOP voters suddenly makes a bit more sense.

First of all, it wasn’t really a foreign policy speech so much as a Middle East speech. There was no mention of any other region or any other issue besides terrorism and state collapse. Which is fine, I suppose, but the speech also failed to justify why so much attention should be paid to the Middle East.

Second of all, the nut paragraph of Bush’s approach was problematic:

No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially. Yet in a long experience that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks, one moment stands out in memory as the turning point we had all been waiting for.  And that was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory.  It was a success, brilliant, heroic, and costly. And this nation will never forget the courage and sacrifice that made it all possible.


I don’t think even the surge’s biggest boosters would characterize it in terms quite that glowing. The surge was always designed to be a short-term, temporary effort to establish order in Iraq long enough for the local political actors to broker a deal that would prevent a return to violence. The problem was that once the George W. Bush administration also chose to back an Iraqi leader hell-bent on sectarianism, the short-term benefits of the surge were always going to dissipate.

The rest of Jeb Bush’s speech, pivoted off of the mistaken idea that the surge could simply be replicated again in Iraq and Syria. Imagine the political problems that existed in Iraq in 2007, and multiply them a hundred-fold, and you have Syria right now. No diplomatic or military surge is going to fix that problem for anything more than a nanosecond.

The reviews of the speech sound like the reviews for the latest “Fantastic Four” film:

  1. Slate’s Fred Kaplan: “a hodgepodge of revisionist history, shallow analysis, and vague prescriptions.”
  2. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison: “early excerpts from Bush’s speech didn’t fully convey how horrible his foreign policy vision for the region is.”
  3. Breitbart’s Joel Pollak: “he failed to provide a sense of overall strategy, losing himself in the details.”

The problem might be deeper than that. Reading this speech I got a weird case of deja vu, and then I realized: What Bush was proposing for his Middle East wasn’t really all that different from what the Obama administration is currently doing. If you look at Bush’s actual specifics on Iraq, most of the things he suggests — “support the Iraqi forces,” “more support to the Kurds,” “restart the serious diplomatic efforts” — aren’t all that different from the current administration’s policies. Bush might propose more forward deployment of U.S. forces, but otherwise his Iraq policy boils down to “I’ll try harder.”

The same was true for his Syria suggestions, except it included the magical realism of “defeating ISIS requires defeating Assad, but we have to make sure that his regime is not replaced by something as bad or worse.” Well, sure, but you might as well ask for a pony while you’re setting aspirational goals like this one on your Middle East vision board.

This is a trope that Bush has displayed previously in his foreign policy musings — attacking the Obama administration’s approach, but then not sounding all that different.

The secret appeal of Jeb Bush is supposed to be that he’s the grown-up in the room who can be competent on foreign policy. But if his entire approach in the Middle East is to replicate the surge strategy, then I’m not sure if the “serious foreign policy” bracket of the GOP presidential primary is all that much better from the “Trump! Trump!! TRUMP!!” bracket.