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When It Comes to Foreign Policy, Is Jeb Bush His Brother’s Keeper?

When It Comes to Foreign Policy, Is Jeb Bush His Brother’s Keeper?

Jeb Bush knows exactly what to say about President Barack Obama, whom he derides as weak when it comes to the Islamic State, naive when it comes to Vladimir Putin, and incompetent when it comes to Ebola. Figuring out what to say about Obama’s predecessor, Bush’s older brother George, will be a lot more complicated.

Surprising virtually no one from either political party, Bush, a popular former governor of Florida, announced on Facebook Tuesday, Dec. 16, that he would “actively explore” a campaign for president. Bush also said he would be launching a new political action committee next month that will allow him to “support leaders, ideas and policies that will expand opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.” Such a move will allow him to tap into the Bush family’s extensive network of wealthy donors and travel the country campaigning for other Republican candidates — crucial steps for laying the national groundwork for an eventual campaign.

Bush’s spokeswoman said he hadn’t made a final decision to run, but strategists from both parties take that as a virtual given. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been similarly cagey on the Democratic side, but she is widely expected to formally announce a run sometime early next year.

If Bush and Clinton wind up facing off in 2016, the race will be portrayed as a clash of dynasties, with the brother of one former president fighting the wife of another. But there would be a key difference. Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, a time of relative peace and stability, and the foreign-policy issues he had focused on most — Rwanda, Kosovo, a warm but complicated relationship with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and an optimistic moment in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — are enormously different from the nation’s biggest challenges today.* Clinton would need to figure out how to defend or distance herself from Obama, not from her husband.

Bush, by contrast, would need to grapple with the legacy of his older brother’s record, since the decisions George W. Bush made in office — invading Iraq, signing off on the CIA’s use of torture, failing to grasp the true nature of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his willingness to use force against his neighbors — are still reverberating nearly six years after he left office, with many Republicans increasingly questioning those choices.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for instance, is polling well largely because Republican voters support his views on keeping the United States from getting enmeshed in new foreign conflicts abroad. Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz, breaking with more hawkish members of their own party, don’t want the United States to send in ground combat forces to battle the Islamic State. The release of last week’s torture report is putting Republicans like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has taken a harsh line against the CIA’s brutal interrogation methods, against former Vice President Dick Cheney, a staunch defender of the program.

For the moment, Bush is playing it safe. When it comes to the Islamic State, for instance, Bush has blasted Obama’s strategy for combating the militants without saying what he would do differently or weighing in on the hot-button debate over whether to send in American ground troops. He has yet to weigh in on the torture report or specify say what he would do to prevent Putin from further meddling in eastern Ukraine.

There are unpredictable issues that are certain to pop up and force Bush to talk about his brother’s position and articulate his own. Take the Obama administration’s surprise deal Wednesday to free former USAID contractor Alan Gross in exchange for several Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States since 2001. George W. Bush drew a firm line with Cuba, introducing new restrictions on travel and cash transfers. He also committed over $400 million to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba, and established a special commission to show Cubans that the United States “stands ready to help them transition toward democracy.”

There are some signs that young Republicans are more open to a deal with Havana, but Jeb Bush has consistently staked out a hawkish position on the issue. “[I]instead of lifting the embargo, we should consider strengthening it,” Bush said in a Dec. 2 speech at a U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC event in Coral Gables, Florida.

Jeb Bush’s origin story is well known. A political natural known for intellect, calm demeanor, and long record of public service, Jeb was the one his parents always thought would run for president. Bush had spent extensive time abroad, living in Venezuela from 1977 to 1979, and making multiple visits to Israel, including a private trip with his immediate family in 2007. Bush’s wife is Mexican, and he speaks fluent Spanish, both traits likely to appeal to at least portions of the Hispanic community.

Instead, George W. Bush — a former Texas governor and major league baseball owner who wasn’t seen as being as intelligent as his younger brother — ran for president first, ultimately serving two terms devoted to pushing the type of muscular neoconservative foreign policy that was anathema to the cold realism of his father and two of the elder Bush’s closest allies, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. With the strong backing of his family, Jeb’s turn may have come at last.

“He knows I want him to run,” George W. Bush said in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. “If I need to reiterate it, I will: Run, Jeb. I think he’d be a great president.”

Bush jokingly referred to Hillary Clinton as his “sister-in-law,” a reference to the close relationship between his father and Bill Clinton, but said he was “absolutely” sure Jeb could beat her in a head-to-head matchup.

Jeb Bush would first to have to get his party’s nomination, no easy task given that his foreign-policy views are squarely in the mainstream, establishment wing of the party at a time when much of the GOP base seems more excited by Paul and Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who has called for a cautious approach to fighting the Islamic State and staked out a more hard-line position on illegal immigration than the former Florida governor.

Bush began articulating his foreign-policy vision this spring, one premised on the idea that Obama is a weak president willing to shirk America’s traditional responsibilities as a superpower capable of ensuring that international norms are honored. In a speech delivered at a pricey Republican Jewish Coalition fundraiser dinner in Las Vegas in March, Bush, according to an account in Time magazine, offered a “defense of muscular American foreign policy” and warned against the isolationist stance touted by Paul. Bush also reportedly met privately with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire organizer of the conference, supporter of Israel, and top Republican donor.

Bush offered his most expansive and direct attack on the Obama administration during a wide-ranging interview in September with the Washington Post. While Bush supported Obama’s decision this year to intensify the campaign against the Islamic State, he took issue with Obama’s alleged failure to bring Europe fully into the fight, an allusion to the fact that the vast bulk of Western airstrikes against the militants in Iraq and Syria have been carried out by the United States. Like many, Bush also used the hysteria over Ebola’s spread to the United States to slam the president’s response in October.

On Israel, meanwhile, Jeb Bush has offered standard talking points about repairing frayed ties with Jerusalem and standing more strongly beside the Jewish state as it confronts Palestinian terrorism, Iran, and other threats. Hillary Clinton is also seen as pro-Israel by many voters, but Jeb Bush would tout himself as offering a distinctly different approach than Obama, who has clashed bitterly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over issues ranging from the Iranian nuclear talks to the status of the moribund peace process.

As the rate heats up, Jeb Bush may benefit from one unexpected dynamic: a continued improvement in public views of his brother, who left office in 2008 with a 35 percent approval rating. According to a Gallup poll released Monday, 49 percent of Americans now have a favorable image of him, versus 46 percent with an unfavorable view. The 49 percent includes 84 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats; both of those figures are up by more than 10 points since 2009. This marks the first time since 2005 that a majority of Americans, albeit a slim one, support the former president. That suggests the Bush name may not be the blessing it once was, but it may not be quite as much of a curse either.

Correction, Dec. 17, 2014: Bill Clinton left the U.S. presidency in January 2001 and not in 1998, as an earlier version of this article mistakenly stated. (Return to reading.)

Photo by Joe Raedle