The Cable

Jeb Bush: On Foreign Policy, I Am Not George W. Bush

Jeb Bush attempted on Wednesday to distance himself from his older brother.

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In an attempt to distance himself from his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush found vagueness was a virtue when he went before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs Wednesday to deliver what was billed as a major foreign-policy address.

Bush presented a somewhat hawkish vision of America’s role in the world — decrying cuts to defense spending and blasting President Barack Obama’s retreat from his now infamous “red-line” on Syria — but also sought to draw a line in the sand between himself and his older brother, former President George W. Bush.

“I love my brother, I love my dad, I actually love my mother as well,” the younger Bush said Wednesday. “But I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”

The former Florida governor is very publicly flirting with a run for president, and in doing so is both benefiting from and being haunted by his family name, which has opened up a vast fundraising network but has also raised questions about whether he would repeat George W. Bush’s military adventures in the Middle East.

Wednesday’s address was a very public, if not particularly confrontational, way of attempting to put that demon to rest. “Using the intelligence capability that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction was not — turns out not to be accurate,” Bush said. “Not creating an environment of security after the successful taking out of (former Iraqi dictator Saddam) Hussein was a mistake.”

Still, Bush was quick to praise the so-called surge, which he described “one of the most heroic acts of courage politically” in presidential history. The surge, Bush argued, created the stability that Obama “could’ve built on to create a fragile but more stable situation.” Instead, Bush said, “the void has been filled, because we created the void.”

To deal with what has arisen in that void — the Islamic State militant group — Bush had a simple answer: “Tighten the noose and then take them out” together with a regional coalition.

More broadly, Bush presented a perspective on America’s role in the world that might be both pleasingly muscular and pleasingly vague in a 2016 Republican presidential primary.

American strength, Bush declared, begins with economic growth at home — or 4 percent growth “for as long as the eye can see.” Moreover, he said, the United States must match its words and its actions “so that the entire world knows that we say what we mean, and mean what we say.”

“This administration talks, but the words fade. They draw red lines, and then erase them,” Bush said. “Hashtag campaigns replace actual diplomacy and engagement.”

These words, Bush argued, must be “backed up by the greatest military force in the world.” Endorsing the George H.W. Bush-era slogan of “peace through strength,” Bush the younger son criticized across-the-board cuts to the defense budget and expressed support for boosting defense spending beyond 2.5 percent of GDP.

But even as he sought to distance himself from his older brother, Bush still recalled themes from the administration of the 43rd president. “I believe our foreign policy must be rooted in a critical principle,” Bush said. “Let’s call it liberty diplomacy.”

In pushing for liberty abroad, Bush appeared cognizant of at least some criticisms that have dogged his brother’s vision of bringing democracy to the Middle East. He described the view that “if you have an election, you’re, you know, you’re a democracy” as a “problem of presidents past as well,” citing the use of elections by Hamas “to take away freedom from people.”

But Bush said little to grapple with the contradictions of his call for freedom abroad while also maintaining strong alliances, arguing for “balance” in Washington’s relationship to Cairo: “If we pull back and we’re diffident about this and just kind of pull back and say, ‘Well, you know, you’re not — you’re not on our team,’ we get the result we’ve seen, which is Egypt going it alone. Egypt welcoming Vladimir Putin to — to Cairo which he did — which they did last week.”

On a host of other issues, Bush staked out positions predictably critical of the Obama administration. He said he looked forward to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and said that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be eliminated, not managed. He criticized the White House’s rapprochement toward Cuba by saying “had they waited, they would have seen significant economic strains that would’ve probably brought Cuba to the table.” He endorsed sending defensive weapons to Ukraine’s beleaguered government.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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