War Stories

Shallow Jeb

The former Florida governor was supposed to be the GOP’s next foreign policy statesman. He just proved he’s not.

Jeb Bush delivers a foreign policy address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Aug. 11, 2015, in Simi Valley, California.
Jeb Bush delivers a foreign policy address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Aug. 11, 2015, in Simi Valley, California.

Photo by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Most presidential candidates who deliver a “major foreign policy address” have something original, potent, or insightful to say. On Tuesday night, as with most other aspects of his campaign to date, Jeb Bush defied expectations.

His 40-minute speech, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, was a hodgepodge of revisionist history, shallow analysis, and vague prescriptions.

The history—his effort to hide the scar of his own family history—was where he placed most of his chips, and he lost them all. As a preface, he admitted that “no leader or policymaker” got “everything right” in the Middle East, “Iraq especially” (his single indirect acknowledgment of his brother’s mistakes). But, he added, “one moment stands out in memory as the turning point” of the war in that country—namely, the “surge,” which “turned events toward victory.”

“Why,” he asked, “was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq?” The “fatal error,” he answered, was the “premature withdrawal” ordered by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who “stood by” as our “hard-won victory” was “thrown away” in “a blind haste to get out”—leaving a vacuum that Iran and ISIS filled.

Bush got a crucial fact wrong in this chronicle: His brother’s administration—not Obama’s—signed the status of forces agreement, on Nov. 17, 2008, which stated, in Article 24: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

Article 30 of that same agreement stated that its terms could be amended “only with the official agreement of the Parties in writing and in accordance with the constitutional procedures in effect in both countries.” These “constitutional procedures” included a vote by the Iraqi Parliament—and at no time between 2008 and 2011 was the Iraqi Parliament going to take such a vote.

Granted, President Obama did want to get out of Iraq; he won the White House in large part on that promise, and there was no more support in the United States than in Iraq for a continued presence of American troops. And yet Obama did send emissaries—among them former aides to George W. Bush—to seek an amendment to allow a few thousand residual forces. The Iraqi government refused. Unless Obama wanted to re-invade the country, there was nothing to be done.

There was another fallacy in Bush’s description of the surge: Though it was a huge tactical success, it did not pave the way toward “victory.” As its architect, Gen. David Petraeus, said on several occasions, the surge was meant merely to create some “breathing space,” a “zone of security,” so that Iraq’s political factions could form a unified government. The problem was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn’t want unity: He didn’t want to make a deal on power-sharing, oil revenues, or land settlements with Sunni or Kurdish leaders; he wanted to maintain Shiite dominance—and it was Maliki’s stubbornness that revived the sectarian violence and left a lane open for ISIS, whose leaders exploited their fellow Sunnis’ resentments.

Later in Tuesday night’s speech, Bush said that the Iraq surge can serve as a model for how “Islamic moderates can be pulled away from extremist forces” in Syria. I doubt that he was proposing to send 100,000 U.S. troops to Syria, as his brother did in Iraq—an idea that would appeal to almost no American generals or voters.  But what he was proposing isn’t at all clear.

Bush also decried Obama’s “limited strikes and other half-measures” against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. But does this mean that he’s proposing all-out strikes and full measures? As president, he said, he would “take the offensive” and “prevail” against radical Islam. He would embed the current U.S. advisers in Iraq alongside local forces—though here, he added, “We do not need, and our friends do not ask for, a major commitment of American combat forces.” Isn’t this some sort of “half-measure”? Or might embedding troops (essentially turning the advisers into combat forces) escalate our involvement to a full measure, “a major commitment”—the sort of slippery slope that Obama is taking care to avoid, rightly or wrongly. And would Bush escalate the fight if mere embedding didn’t do the job? He didn’t say.

He did say, “In all of this,” referring to the fight against jihadists, “the United States must engage with friends and allies, and lead again in that vital region.” Which friends and allies does he mean? The Saudis try to rope us into a savage, fruitless war against the Houthi rebels, whom it portrays as Iranian proxies. The Turks lend us an air base to step up strikes against ISIS but then use the moment of goodwill as cover to attack their bigger enemy, the Kurds, who rank as the jihadists’ most potent foe (and to whom Bush promised in his speech to send heavy armaments). ISIS derives much of its strength from the deep disunity of its natural foes, some of whom are our allies, some of whom aren’t. “Action, coordination and American leadership,” the solutions Bush calls for, are more complex than he—and many other Republicans who have never held national office—seems to recognize.

He criticized Obama for drawing a “red line” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, then failing to follow through. Many of Obama’s defenders have filed the same complaint. But what would Bush do? “Under my strategy,” he said, “the aim would be to draw the [Syrian] moderates together and back them up as one force … not just in taking the fight to the enemy but in helping them to form a stable moderate government once ISIS is defeated and Assad is gone.” How would he do this? By replicating his brother’s surge in Iraq. After all, he added with blithe confidence, “the strategic elements in both cases [Iraq circa 2007 and Syria today] are the same”—thus demonstrating that he and his speechwriters have no understanding of the tangled politics in Syria or of what made the Iraqi surge work to the extent that it did.

As a first step to boosting American influence, Bush said he would reverse the “significant dismantling of our own military” of the past seven years, ignoring that defense spending has been on the rise and that the current budget, amounting to $620 billion, is larger than at any time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. One could argue for some sort of rejiggering in defense spending, but Bush didn’t do that.

Finally, Bush made a strong showing in the competition to see which Republican candidate can most pummel Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Like the others, he promised to undo the deal “immediately” upon taking office—ignoring that five other nations also signed the deal and are unlikely to follow such a lead. He mischaracterized the accord in a number of ways. He lambasted “the Obama-Clinton-Kerry policy of treating the mullahs in Iran as a stabilizing force” (there is no such policy), complained that the deal says nothing about Iran’s support for terrorism (true, but a generation of Soviet-American arms-control treaties, including some signed by the hero of this speech, Ronald Reagan, said nothing about the ravages of Communism), and scoffed that “least of all does it prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability” (when, in fact, it does and, despite another common claim, for more than 10 years).

Throughout the speech, Bush spoke of restoring trust in American leadership. But what he proposed doing in his first days as president—scuttling a deal that the nation’s top diplomats and scientists negotiated alongside five great powers of Europe and Asia, and that the U.N. Security Council then unanimously endorsed—would shatter that trust and diminish that leadership.

When Jeb Bush entered the race, pundits and politicians proclaimed him the front-runner. At the moment, the most encouraging poll puts him barely into double digits, drawing half as much support as “Undecided.” A poll out Tuesday night has him in seventh place in Iowa, luring just 5 percent of those surveyed. Of course, all this could change, especially after—or if—Donald Trump flames out. Meanwhile, if Bush hopes to get a boost from his ideas in foreign policy, this speech isn’t likely to do the trick.