Jeb Bush has been making the rounds. Last week he unveiled what was purported to be a major foreign policy speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speech was, as it deserved to be, widely panned. Not only was the delivery rushed and borderline incoherent, but the speech signally failed to do what it set out to achieve: to differentiate Jeb from older brother George and show voters that he is indeed “his own man.”
Yesterday he largely regurgitated the contents of his Chicago speech on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. What is striking about both high-profile appearances is how, well, familiar it all sounds. In both the appearances one would be hard pressed not to see that….
All the familiar Bush tropes were there….
Like older brother W., who never made a speech in the presence of Laura without telling the assembled how he “married up,” Jeb too was at pains to paint himself as a dedicated family man. In Chicago he let us in on a little secret: He really loves his dad (and his mom too, and he “hopes that’s ok”); he, virtuous man, also loves his bother, who, though he made mistakes (and who among us has not?), atoned for them by his decision to send ever-greater numbers of American troops into harm’s way in 2007. It was, according to the candidate to be, one of “the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done.”
Presumably he also loves his wife Columba, but perhaps not her penchant for binging on bling. Hate the sin, love the sinner. It’s an odd thing when the Bushes talk about how much they love each other: they make it sound as though it reflects well upon them. As the New Yorker’s estimable Amy Davidson has written, a “quintessential Bush family moment” is one that most always concludes “with the participants mysteriously pleased about how it all looks—convinced that their fine qualities have saved them.”
If the themes were familiar, so were a lot of the faces…
For someone at such pains to paint himself as his “own man” Jeb’s foreign policy team looks awfully familiar. Of the 20-plus advisers who have signed on to do the seemingly impossible and lend Jeb an aura of gravitas, 12 worked for big brother George while 4 worked for both brother and father George. They are nearly all neoconservatives—some of whom had more than their share of responsibility for the foreign policy disasters of the second Bush administration: Paul Wolfowitz, Meghan O’Sullivan, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden are just a few of the all-too-familiar faces from the George W. Bush foreign policy team. There are, to be fair, a few grown-ups on the team, most prominently James Baker and George Shultz, but they, esteemed statesmen that they are, are far outnumbered by unreconstructed, unapologetic neoconservative ideologues.
The Bush penchant for committing malapropisms was also on display…
If there’s a chilling similarity between the W. and Jeb foreign policy teams, the brothers Bush also share a disquieting and puzzling unease with their native tongue. Jeb, like George, cannot seem to get his head around how to pronounce the word “nuclear.” Only seconds into the Chicago address Jeb seemed to confuse Iran and Iraq. But about the challenges roiling the Middle East, rest assured he’s studying up, telling the audience: “I don’t have a solution. I mean, I–I–I’ve read articles, you know, about whether the 1915 kind of breakout of the Middle East and how that no longer is a viable deal.” On the Hewitt show, this was his response to a question on U.S. nuclear posture: “To be honest, I can’t give you an informed answer to that.” Gotta have those tricky details at the ready for that inevitable 3 a.m. phone call, Jeb.
….as were all the old ideas.
In spite of all of the foregoing, perhaps the most worrying aspect of Mr. Bush’s first foray into the foreign policy debate were what might generously be called his “ideas.” As might well have been expected, President Obama has been the target of much of his criticism. During Wednesday’s appearance on Hewitt, Jeb opined: “Had we kept the 10,000 troop commitment that was there for the President to negotiate and to agree with, we probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now.” Perhaps. Perhaps, too, we “probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now” (gotta love those Bush circumlocutions) if his brother had not decided to overthrow the hated Saddam way back when.
In Chicago, Jeb bemoaned that Obama “came to office promising greater engagement has left America less influential in the world.” What is more, “Under this administration, we are inconsistent and indecisive. We have lost the trust and confidence of our friends. We definitely no longer inspire fear in our enemies.”
If this is Jeb’s idea of what a pacifist administration looks like, we’re in trouble. President Obama, among other things, committed to a surge in Afghanistan (2009), then dispatched U.S. air power to dislodge a Libyan dictator (2011), began a series of airstrikes against the IS group over Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan (present), and ramped up a drone war that now stretches from the deserts of Northern Africa through the lower Arabian peninsula on into the mountains of central Asia (2009-present). This is to say nothing of his pursuit of a new Cold War with a nuclear-armed Russia by injecting troops and advisers into Western Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics.
Republicans beware: a Jeb candidacy is the road to nowhere.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.