WASHINGTON – Jeb Bush has firmly established himself as the Republican to vote for if you wish his brother were still president. Best of luck with that.
In what was billed as a major foreign policy speech Tuesday, Bush proposed inching back into Iraq, wading into the Syrian civil war and engaging in much the same kind of geopolitical engineering and nation-building that George W. Bush attempted. So much for the whole “I am my own man” routine.
He finally understands that to have any credibility, even amid a field of uber-hawks (minus Rand Paul), he has to say the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. But judging from his actions, that’s not what he seems to believe. Why would someone who thinks the war was wrong include Paul Wolfowitz, one of its architects, among his top foreign policy advisers? Why would someone who sees the Middle East as an unholy mess reveal that he consults his brother, the chief mess-maker, on what to do next?
Bush says “we do not need … a major commitment” of American ground troops in Iraq or Syria to fight against the Islamic State – at least for now. But he proposes embedding U.S. soldiers and Marines with Iraqi units, which basically means leading them into battle. He proposes much greater support for Kurdish forces, which are loath to fight in the Sunni heartlands where the Islamic State holds sway. And he wants the establishment of no-fly zones and safe havens in Syria, as a way to battle both the Islamic State and dictator Bashar al-Assad.
That all sounds like a “major commitment” of something. And none of it addresses the fundamental problem in Iraq, which George W. Bush also failed to grasp: the lack of political reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Bush 43’s vaunted “surge” was a Band-Aid that masked, but did not heal, this underlying wound.
Like the other Republican contenders, Jeb Bush opposes the Iran nuclear deal and promises to undo it – although he is equally silent about how the “better deal” that critics say they want could be achieved.
In general, as one might expect, Bush blames President Barack Obama and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for basically all that is wrong with the world. Voters may have short memories, but I think they’ll remember it was Bush’s brother who shattered the Iraqi state and created the vacuum that the Islamic State came to fill. Voters might also recall that when Bush’s brother took office, Iran had no operational uranium enrichment centrifuges; when he left, Iran had about 4,000.
Jeb Bush tends to rush through his foreign policy speeches as if he’s checking boxes on a job application form. He becomes much more animated, and seems on more solid ground, when he’s talking about domestic issues. But remember that George W. Bush intended to have a domestic focus, too, before history decided otherwise.
Can Bush ever escape his brother’s shadow – or, for that matter, his father’s? I have serious doubts. For now, however, he’s busy enough trying to get out of Donald Trump’s wake.
Jeb! might think about adding more exclamation points to his logo. He’s running an utterly conventional campaign in an unconventional year, and frankly he seems to be putting a lot of Republican voters to sleep.
While other contenders for the nomination compete with front-runner Trump to say the most outrageous things and draw attention to themselves – a battle they’re not likely to win – Bush plods along. He made it to center stage at the first debate, right alongside Trump, but his performance was unexciting. If Bush declines to throw red meat to the activist Republican base, he’ll be better positioned to win the general election. But he’ll have a worse chance of making it through the primaries.
Recent state-level polls might not be enough to send Bush and his advisers into panic mode but definitely should make them pay attention. In Iowa, the Real Clear Politics polling average puts Bush at 7 percent – behind Trump, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz, and tied for sixth place with Marco Rubio. For a candidate with Bush’s thoroughbred pedigree and overstuffed bank account, that’s embarrassing.
And in New Hampshire, the Real Clear Politics average has Bush in second place behind Trump but just one point ahead of John Kasich, who suddenly seems to be challenging Bush for the “reasonable conservative” vote.
His brother’s name is already hurting Jeb Bush. His brother’s policies will hurt him more.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.