No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially. Yet in a long experience that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks, one moment stands out in memory as the turning point we had all been waiting for. And that was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory. It was a success, brilliant, heroic, and costly.
Bush’s story about the “surge” isn’t surprising, but it is false and dangerously misleading. He celebrates the “surge” without qualification as a “success” and declares it a turning point, but both claims are untrue. As I said earlier, the “surge” failed on its own terms, but more than that it means that the U.S. recommitted to a disastrous war at a time when the public had already expressed their overwhelming opposition to continuing the war. George W. Bush’s admirers cheer his decision to escalate the war as a “courageous” act because of the unpopularity of the war at that point, but it was really the most predictable and self-serving attempt to make the best out of an utter debacle. It isn’t just that the “surge” turned out to be unsuccessful according to the Bush administration’s own standards, but that it represented the worst instincts of our political class to escalate a lost war instead of cutting our losses much earlier. The fact that Jeb Bush sees this as an exemplary moment in recent history tells us all we need to know about his foreign policy judgment.
If that weren’t enough, Bush also told us that he shouldn’t be trusted based on what he wants to do in Syria:
Defeating ISIS requires defeating Assad, but we have to make sure that his regime is not replaced by something as bad or worse.
In other words, Bush not only wants to plunge Syria even deeper into chaos and violence with the collapse of the regime, but he wants to keep the U.S. involved in the chaos and violence to establish a successor government. Bush insists that the U.S. should be “helping them to form a stable, moderate government once ISIS is defeated and Assad is gone,” which suggests launching a decades-long effort that will come at some unknown but very great cost to the U.S. To that end, he says that the U.S. “must over time establish multiple safe zones in Syria,” which will require a substantial military commitment of indefinite duration, and he also wants to enforce a “no-fly zone” in Syria. Both of these will necessarily put the U.S. in direct conflict with the Syrian government, and it will put the U.S. in the position of attacking the government that ISIS and other jihadists are fighting. The possibility that this could trigger a crisis with Iran doesn’t seem to occur to Bush, but he probably would see that as a benefit of this policy.
The early excerpts from Bush’s speech didn’t fully convey how horrible his foreign policy vision for the region is. It is good that he has made his views known now so that there will be no illusion about the kind of foreign policy he would conduct if he were elected president. This speech tonight is just the latest reminder of why we should hope that never happens.