There is probably no way Jeb Bush could have avoided awkward moments discussing foreign policy in the months before his official campaign launch. He might have prepared sharp answers to the inevitable Iraq questions, but what could they have been? Much of his party yearns, if not for endorsement of the war, at least for the kind of blame-shifting that denies it was a tragic mistake. References to “intelligence failures” and “what everyone believed” and “the surge” now abound in Republican discourse and were part of Jeb’s response too.
So conventional has this sort of excuse-making become that Jeb was unprepared in early May when Fox News’s Megyn Kelly asked him whether he would have invaded Iraq “knowing what we know now.” The former Florida governor seemed to mishear the question and sought cover by invoking faulty intelligence: “I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody, and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”
But there is broad realization among the public and political class alike that whatever the excuses, the actual decision to invade Iraq was the most costly American foreign-policy error since Vietnam, and so Jeb later reversed himself and clarified that he would not have gone to war. A more incisive statement—noting that the neoconservatives who formed the core of his brother’s foreign policy team had long agitated for an Iraq invasion, adding that American intelligence conclusions about WMD and Saddam’s ties to terror were being “fixed around” a policy already decided upon—would have had the benefit of being true. But it would also have been political suicide, for which Jeb Bush has shown no propensity.
Before the Iraq questions arose, Jeb faced inquiries about his foreign policy advisors. In February he released a long list of them, weighted towards officials from his brother’s administration, including Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz and hawkish Cheney aide John Hannah. But he also included realists from his father’s administration, most notably former Secretary of State James Baker, then and now a lightning rod for neoconservative criticism. The neocons’ problem with Baker is that he is a forceful advocate of a two-state Israel-Palestine solution; as secretary of state he pushed hard to stop Israel from building settlements on the West Bank, and in the process was less than deferential to Israel’s right-wing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and his then-ambassador, Bibi Netanyahu. “Pro-Israel” hawks never forgave him, and when it was announced this winter that Baker was speaking before J Street, the liberal Zionist pro-peace organization, they went into high attack mode. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson reportedly demanded that Bush force Baker to cancel the speech, and when that didn’t happen, Adelson was reported to be “ripshit” and said it would cost Bush dearly.
Jeb responded defensively: he noted the wide ideological range of his advisor list, added that he disagreed with what Baker had said at J Street, authored a column at National Review repeating standard hawkish talking points about demonic Iran and treacherous Palestinians and peace-loving Israel, and announced the hiring of two hardliners, one a Weekly Standard writer, as foreign-policy staffers. Finally, at a fundraiser in New York, he said that on most Middle East questions the person he most looks to for advice is George W. Bush. Clearly Jeb wanted to convey that he is as hawkish on Iran and deferential to Netanyahu as everybody else in the Republican field, save perhaps Rand Paul.
Yet despite the loyalty oaths, there remains doubt over where Jeb’s actual inclinations lie. The neoconservatives who pay the closest attention to such matters are pushing other candidates, particularly Marco Rubio. Jeb has not repudiated his brother’s foreign policy, far from it, but he has not repudiated his father’s either. He has said that he is “own man,” with a two-term governor’s record to stand on. But this record concerns foreign policy not at all. Why did he put James Baker on his advisor roster? Was he indeed about to hire Elbridge Colby—a respected realist foreign-policy intellectual who once wrote that war with Iran could turn into disaster with no conclusive outcome—as a foreign policy coordinator? (Colby’s hiring was reportedly nixed by the “political” wing of Jeb’s campaign, as was the hiring of pragmatist Meghan O’Sullivan before him.)
At this stage Jeb Bush’s foreign-policy utterances have little significance beyond their role in the nomination contest. To imagine what a Jeb Bush presidency might look like, it may be fruitful to look elsewhere. Because Jeb Bush is not only the son and brother of figures with important and contrasting foreign policy records, but an individual with an unusual personal history, there is much material to speculate upon.
Conservative commentators often scant how successful a foreign-policy president George H.W. Bush was. To end the Cold War on victorious yet peaceful terms, to set the stage for the reunification of Germany, to build a large international coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait—these were considered masterful accomplishments at the time and far exceed the foreign-policy achievements of Bush 41’s three successors.
Despite a business and political career begun in Texas, George H.W. Bush was inescapably a product of the Eastern Establishment—part of the last generation in which that WASP group held substantial influence in American life. In his presidency one can see traces of the attitudes of the men who constructed the architecture of the postwar era: a genuine affinity for the democratic leaders of Europe; a respect for international law, diplomacy, and the United Nations; a readiness to use force tempered by an understanding of the horror and unpredictability of war. In George H.W. Bush’s presidency there was no extraordinary deference to Israel, a state that the postwar foreign-policy establishment believed would likely present America many problems.
But this George Bush was a one-term president, buffeted by a recession and a public fight with the Israel lobby, and his son George W. Bush took lessons from that defeat. One was that it was politically necessary to stay on the good side of the neocons. Bush 43 by all accounts knew or cared little about foreign policy in the late 1990s, but he knew something about intra-Republican politics. After securing the nomination, he arranged to be tutored in Austin by Condoleezza Rice and neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. Said Perle of the sessions, “Two things became clear. One is that he didn’t know very much. The other is that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.” When Bush won, the tutors received high positions and were able to place regime change in Iraq, and possibly in Iran, on the new president’s agenda.
This record is what most see when Jeb Bush announces that he looks to his brother for advice on the Middle East. But it is often overlooked that by the middle of his second term, George W. Bush had ceased pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy. By early 2006, when it was clear the Iraq venture was an unmitigated disaster, he became determined to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Cheney talked the president out of it for a while, but finally, over Cheney’s objections, Rumsfeld was let go after the midterm elections. So was Paul Wolfowitz—moved to the World Bank—and Douglas Feith; the two who led the neoconservative shop inside the Pentagon. Cheney’s top aide, “Scooter” Libby, was under indictment, weakening the vice president’s influence. According to biographer James Mann, Bush increasingly began to form his own foreign-policy judgments. To replace Rumsfeld, he chose Robert Gates, a realist who had worked previously under Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, two of the most prominent establishment critics of his Iraq policy. Elevated to secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice became more influential. Cheney would recommend policies—bombing Syria, for instance—and the recommendation would be ignored.
Bush backed Rice over Cheney in pushing for a ceasefire to Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon; Cheney had urged America to let Israel “finish the job” while some neoconservatives hoped to escalate the conflict into a war on Iran. By 2007, Bush had authorized Rice to seek talks with Syria and Iran, and by 2008 Rice had sent William Burns to meet officially with the Iranians, a move that outraged the neocons. Jeffrey Goldberg reported in The Atlantic that by the end of his second term Bush had begun referring to Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys”, mocking their perennially belligerent policy recommendations. In short, any number of conclusions could be drawn from Jeb’s “reliance” on George W. as an advisor.
Then there is the suggestive matter of Jeb Bush’s personal biography. Both of George H.W. Bush’s office-holding sons, in quite different ways, moved away from the New England WASP culture of their parents. George W. Bush’s trajectory is the better known: at age 40, having lived as a fairly arrogant and entitled alcoholic, W. stopped drinking and became an evangelical Christian, shortly thereafter becoming his father’s chief political liaison with the Christian Right. If Barbara Bush once referred to evangelical leaders as “these fakes,” there was little artificial about their rising influence in the GOP. While evangelicalism can come in every shade, in late 20th-century America it most often coincided with conservative politics and gave a boost to Christian Zionism, which hardly existed as a political force before 1980. From evangelical ranks came numerous personalities who interpreted the 9/11 attacks as the prequel to an apocalyptic religious war between Christianity and Islam.
George W. Bush did not deploy such language overtly, though some of his rhetoric came close. A confidant of French president Jacques Chirac told a journalist that in 2003 Bush had twice urged Chirac to join the invasion of Iraq because the world had arrived at the era prefigured by Gog and Magog, signaling the arrival of God’s final days of judgment. Chirac was sufficiently disturbed by the claim to ask a theologian in Lausanne what the Gog and Magog business was about. It concerned enemies of Israel and the end times. Whether or not these conversations took place as reported, this was the impression that George W. Bush gave to Europeans, where this account circulated widely.
Jeb Bush also left his parents’ WASPdom, but in a different direction. In 1974 at age 21, he married, in a small Catholic ceremony at the University of Austin, a young, barely middle-class Mexican woman, Columba Garnica de Gallo, whom he had met three years earlier while in a work-study program of his prep school, Phillips Andover. He proposed in Spanish; when she accepted, she gave him a silver ring with a peace symbol. After graduation he took a job as a bank manager and moved with his bride to Venezuela. If there is a sociological context, it is that it was not uncommon for young establishment background WASPs coming of age in the late 1960s—that consummate era of WASP denigration—to seek to shed their heritage like an unwanted skin. But seldom was it done with this kind of life-changing seriousness.
Jeb Bush’s career in business and politics has hardly been that of a rebel. But he has certainly carved out his own path. He lives at least partially in the culture of wife’s Catholic faith, to which he formally converted in 1995, and of Hispanic Florida. He speaks Spanish at home, and associates describe him as completely bicultural. Like virtually all American Catholics who hold elected office, Jeb has picked and chosen what he wanted from church doctrine, opposing abortion, supporting vouchers that aided Catholic schools, rejecting Catholic admonitions against the death penalty. He has not been a particularly right-wing Catholic, the kind who rails against the supposedly liberal Vatican II doctrines emanating from Rome in the style of the 1960s National Review.
Jeb Bush has voiced positions about immigration that seem to reflect the influence of American Hispanics and the Catholic Church. Might his Church also inform somewhat his foreign-policy views?
Under the papacy of John Paul II, the Vatican plainly and forcefully spoke against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Neither John Paul II nor his successors, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, have been staunch allies of Israel’s right-wing governments. If Jeb Bush opposes the Catholic Church’s position favoring Palestinian statehood, he has kept his disagreements to himself. Nor did he feel compelled to oppose the recent statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly endorsing President Obama’s efforts to negotiate with Iran. Perhaps if he disagreed, he wouldn’t say anything.
American Catholics are not, generally speaking, isolationist. Nor are American Latinos—and recent survey data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs indicates that their foreign-policy attitudes roughly mirror those of most Americans. But there are some subtle differences, sufficient to make it worth speculating whether, or to what extent, Jeb has absorbed Catholic and Latino attitudes into his worldview. Generally Latinos are more favorably disposed to the United Nations, more concerned about global warming, and somewhat more favorably inclined towards negotiation with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
When Jeb Bush speaks, as he did recently, about America’s responsibility to fight injustice and persecution, he mentions the assaults on Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and Kenya, subjects addressed by the pope as well. The tropes are interventionist and globalist, yet clearly drawn from a different playbook than the one his brother adopted from the neoconservatives.
It is a good bet that this blend of WASP/Latino/Catholic hybridism would make Jeb Bush a formidable general-election candidate. S.V. Dáte, the Palm Beach Post reporter who covered Jeb’s governorship for two terms, writes near the end of a mostly scathing biography, “Imagine Jeb and his wife Columba on a bus tour of California—she speaking the English she learned upon moving to the United States, he slipping into the fluent Spanish he learned courting her. Imagine their sons setting up the Viva Jeb! headquarters in Santa Ana. Imagine the pure terror this would generate at the Democratic National Committee … the mere possibility of losing that state would drastically alter the Democrats’ strategy.”
Jeb Bush’s political record is his governorship: he was a forceful hands-on tax-cutting and bureaucracy-shrinking conservative, with a particular interest in education reform. More striking perhaps than his policies, which reflect Florida’s realities of 15 years ago, was the style: Jeb is a wonk, one who still can’t resist answering questions with blizzards of statistics and references to new studies. In offbeat forums like his lengthy 2013 Kindle interview with David Samuels, he reveals himself as unusually well read for a politician and deeply worried that a culture of complacency about education and student achievement will leave America behind in a global information-based economy.
Of course, the viability of a conservative domestic reform agenda depends on the United States not exhausting its resources in endless war. Many mainstream Republicans understand this well enough, but in the early 2016 campaign they have been drowned out by the hawkish billionaires and right-wing media and think-tank interventionists. Whether more sober Republicans find their voice depends, in great part, on a candidate willing to lead them. It is a role Jeb Bush would do well to fill.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.