Jeb Bush: ‘Mistakes’ made in Iraq on his brother’s watch

FOREIGN POLICY SPEECH: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to guests at a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Wednesday in Chicago. Bush delivered his first major foreign policy speech at the event as he continues to test the waters for a potential run for president in 2016.
FOREIGN POLICY SPEECH: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush speaks to guests at a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Wednesday in Chicago. Bush delivered his first major foreign policy speech at the event as he continues to test the waters for a potential run for president in 2016. Getty Images

Jeb Bush declared Wednesday he’s his own man, taking on one of his biggest hurdles if he decides to seek the presidency — his familial ties.

Speaking before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the likely Republican presidential candidate laid out his foreign-policy principles, ripping the Obama administration for being “inconsistent and indecisive” and getting in a subtle dig at his potential 2016 Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton.

But Bush also sought to put distance between himself and his presidential father, George H.W. Bush, and brother, George W. Bush, whose handling of the Iraq War remains deeply unpopular with voters.

Though he noted he has been “fortunate” to have a father and a brother who shaped foreign policy from the Oval Office, Bush said every president “inherits a changing world and changing circumstances.”

“Just for the record, one more time, I love my brother, I love my dad ... and I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make,” he said. “But I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.”

“Each president,” he added, “learns from those who came before, their principles, their adjustments.”

Bush’s speech was his second major policy address in as many weeks as he considers a run for the presidency, but perhaps no other issue looms larger for him than the prospect of a third Bush presidency. He noted during his first speech, on the economy, that if he decides to run, his family name will present an “interesting challenge.”

Still, he offered no criticism of either his father or his brother Wednesday as he outlined his approach to foreign policy, scolding the Obama administration for retreating. Instead, he outlined a policy not unlike his presidential brother, endorsing what he called “liberty diplomacy” backed by “the greatest military force in the world.” He called for the destruction of the Islamic State but offered no details of how to do so.

He lightly rebuked his brother’s administration’s handling of the war in Iraq during a question-and-answer session, even as he used the criticism to accuse President Barack Obama of securing a haven for Islamic State terrorists by failing to build on his brother’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq.

“There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure,” Bush said, adding that the intelligence “that everybody embraced about weapons of mass destruction turned out to not be accurate.”

Obama, then an Illinois state senator, had questioned the administration’s claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; Knight Ridder, later purchased by McClatchy, reported at the time that there was no support among the CIA’s professional class for the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Bush also faulted his brother’s administration for failing to create “an environment for security” in Iraq after the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

But he called his brother’s decision to deploy 20,000 additional troops into Iraq in 2007 “one of the most heroic acts of courage, politically, that any president’s done because there was no support.”

And he maintained that the troop buildup created stability “that when the new president came in, he could have built on.”

Obama’s decision to leave Iraq, he said, created a void that has been filled by Islamic State terrorists.

While Bush seeks to make his own claim on foreign policy, his advisers include veterans of his father’s and brother’s administrations.

They include James Baker, his father’s secretary of state; and his brother’s homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff; former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley; ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden; and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who pushed the Iraq invasion.

Democrats suggested that Jeb Bush’s foreign policy “may be even more troublesome” than his brother’s, highlighting remarks Bush made in Miami last year when he criticized Obama for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, citing the presence of troops in Korea as an example of ensuring stability.

“Jeb Bush has made it clear that if he were in charge, our brave men and women would be stationed in Iraq indefinitely,” said Democratic National Committee communications director Mo Elleithee.

But Bush charged that Obama, who came into office “promising greater engagement with the world, has left America less influential in the world.”

He said the administration no longer seeks to prevent Iran from securing nuclear weapons but now “seeks merely to regulate it.”

And he bashed the administration for what he said was the “incredible regularity” with which it lobs leaks and personal insults at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bush declared support for the National Security Agency’s controversial domestic surveillance program, which the George W. Bush administration greatly expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The program, he said, “contributes to awareness of potential terror cells and interdiction efforts on a global scale.”

He made no mention of potential Republican rival Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has called for ending the program, but said, “I don’t understand how the debate has gotten off track where we’re not understanding and protecting. We do protect our civil liberties, but this is a hugely important program to use these technologies to keep us safe.”

He also dinged former Secretary of State Clinton, though not by name, mentioning the administration’s efforts to “reset” relations, presumably including one with Russia that Clinton had championed.

“With grandiosity, they announce resets and then disengage,” Bush said. “Hashtag campaigns replace actual diplomacy and engagement.”

Though his brother was criticized for embracing nation-building after decrying it, Bush told the audience that the U.S. “has an undiminished ability to shape events and build alliances of free people. We can project power and enforce peaceful stability in far-off areas of the globe.”

He cited the U.S. experience in Korea, saying, “We have learned that if we withdraw from the defense of liberty elsewhere, the battle eventually comes to us anyway in our cities, in our streets, and in our skies.”

He criticized Obama for being reluctant to arm the Ukrainian government to defend against Russian aggression, even as he acknowledged that most European countries oppose the move.

“To ignore their request for defensive military support when being they’re being invaded, it just seems feckless,” Bush said. “The U.S. should lead in this regard.”

Bush did not mention Obama’s decision to restore ties with Cuba, but he said during the question-and-answer session that the U.S. got “nothing in return” for agreeing to allow for increased visits and trade.

Had the administration waited, he said, it “would have seen significant economic strains that would bring Cuba to the table,” noting that its ally, Venezuela, is close to a failed state.

Bush’s brother tightened sanctions against Cuba, and Jeb Bush ridiculed the idea of allowing more American tourists to visit the island, saying most of the money will end up in the regime’s coffers.

“The notion that somehow they’re going to have freedom just kind of outbreak in Cuba, I think it is false,” he said.

(Email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark.)

Foreign policy under George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama

George H.W. Bush

CHINA – After the Chinese military crushed a pro-democracy protest in 1989, Bush resisted pressure for a harder stance, leaning toward personal diplomacy to maintain ties with the key trading partner.

PANAMA – Sent troops into Panama in 1989 to overthrow Gen. Manuel Noriega, accused of narcotics trafficking and threatening the security of the Panama Canal and Americans living there.

IRAQ – Sent 425,000 American troops to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait after Saddam Hussein invaded in 1991. The U.S. crushed Iraqi forces but left Hussein in power.

George W. Bush

AFGHANISTAN – Less than a month after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he sent forces into Afghanistan to eliminate the terrorist camps of al Qaida and the military installations of the Taliban regime.

IRAQ – Ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The claims of biological and chemical weapons turned out to be unfounded.

AFRICA – Launched a new approach in Africa, pushing through a massive program to help AIDS patients and creating the Millennium Challenge Corp. – a foreign aid agency to help Africa.

Barack Obama

IRAQ and AFGANISTAN – Ended combat operations in the two countries. Both remain deeply unsettled, and Obama is asking Congress for authorization for strikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

CUBA – Obama in December announced the most sweeping changes to U.S.-Cuba policy in 50 years, agreeing with Cuban leader Raul Castro to establish diplomatic relations and expand travel and trade.

SYRIA – Obama has called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but his administration has been loath to arm vetted moderates to fight Assad’s regime.