One of the most vexing questions in US politics is whether the foreign policy of former Florida governor John Ellis ‘Jeb’ Bush will look more like his father’s or his brother’s. Bush announced he would ‘actively explore the possibility’ of a presidential campaign on Tuesday.
The common perception is that Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, was a moderate and a foreign policy realist. He largely navigated the United States to the post-Cold War world with deftness, and he wisely held back US force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1990-91 liberation of Kuwait. Bush père surrounded himself with hard-nosed realists like Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and James A. Baker III, his secretary of state.
Conversely, the foreign policy of Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, weighs heavily his response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the onset of the global ‘war on terror,’ and the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq that ousted Saddam and presided over a sectarian civil war between competing Sunni and Shiite forces. Bush frère deployed muscular language in stark tones about democracy, freedom and embraced a neoconservatism that set itself as realism’s counterpart, with support from officials like Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary, John Bolton, his ambassador to the United Nations, and Dick Cheney, his powerful vice president.
On the basis of idle speculation and one speech earlier this month in Miami, commentators are already declaring that Jeb Bush, who might run to become the 45th president of the United States, is closer to his brother’s foreign policy than his father’s.
Those false dichotomies will only calcify before they become more nuanced.
Lost in the debate is the fact that George H.W. Bush pursued some fairly heady interventionism himself, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s and as US vice president in the 1980s, when he was intimately involved in the Iran-Contra affair. As president, he overthrew the Panamanian government just 11 months after his inauguration, toppling the de facto leader, Manuel Noriega, and it was Bush (not his successor, Bill Clinton) who initially sent US forces into Mogadishu. Also lost is the fact that George W. Bush initially ran for president on a ‘humble’ foreign policy that, owing to his background as a governor of the border state of Texas, augured a more respectful relationship with Latin America. Lost, too, is the fact that diplomacy in the second term of the Bush administration marked a significant course correction from the neoconservative bravado of its first term. Cheney, the bête noire of the second Bush administration, was a sensibly realist moderate as defense secretary in the first. Bush 43’s national security adviser and, ultimately, final secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was Scowcroft’s top Russia adviser in the Bush 41 administration. Both presidencies are responsible for some of the most successful humanitarian advances of the past half-century, including the international effort to reduce ozone emissions in the 1990s and the US-led program to deliver HIV/AIDS medications to sub-Saharan Africa in the 2000s.
So what will Jeb Bush’s foreign policy really be like? No one really knows, but it won’t fall into prefabrication notions of either a ‘Bush 41’ or ‘Bush 43’ model. Though the coming Republican primary will also be a fight about the party’s future, Jeb Bush won’t necessarily drive the foreign policy debate. Bush will certainly not embrace the non-interventionist views of Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning US senator from Kentucky. Nor can you particularly imagine that Bush will echo John McCain, the US senator from Arizona, set to become the next chair of the US Senate Armed Forces Committee, who routinely calls for more hawkish US responses from Iran to Georgia and from Ukraine to Syria.
Like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, Bush’s foreign policy credentials will be relatively slight in any presidential contest, notwithstanding his family pedigree. That will be especially true if, as expected, he faces off against former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself the former first lady of the United States and a former US senator from New York.
So it’s not surprising that Bush’s foreign policy debut earlier this month was stronger on rhetoric than anything else — the sort of red meat that you might expect a budding presidential candidate to toss to supporters in the critical pre-primary phase. That’s especially true for Bush, known as a wonkish conservative who has nevertheless challenged Republican orthodoxy on education, immigration reform and other domestic policy issues.
In that speech, Bush supported greater spending for the US military and stronger free trade agreements. Not surprisingly, he criticized Democratic incumbent Barack Obama on Russia, Syria, east Asia, nuclear energy negotiations with Iran and the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq. For good measure, Bush argued that the United States should strengthen its embargo on Cuba, not lift it. But it was everything you would expect from Romney, New Jersey governor Chris Christie or a handful of 2016 Republican hopefuls:
“In this unstable and uncertain world, the United States has actually played a part in creating greater instability and greater unraveling,” Bush said, adding that the United States, “because we’ve retrenched,” now has “worse relations than what we had before”…
One of Bush’s precepts was more of a slogan: “Words matter.” He said that time and again, Obama has made threats or promises and then failed to act. “Presidents need to set United States aspirations and intentions where there is little gap between words and deeds,” Bush said. “Think of the ‘Russian reset.’ Think of the ‘Syrian red line.’ Think of the ‘pivot to Asia.’ Think of taking out ISIS.”
Marathon US presidential campaigns, which essentially begin in the aftermath of midterm congressional elections and end two years later, mean that candidate have to respond in real time to foreign policy challenges that often shift, crest and wane throughout the course of a campaign cycle. Like both his father and his brother, Bush’s foreign policy would likely be anchored more in the events of his presidency, if elected, than any campaign rhetoric — the Soviet Union’s collapse framed Bush 41’s administration just as the 2001 terrorist attacks framed Bush 43’s.
Moreover, Bush does have a record of two terms as governor of one of the largest and most diverse of US states with strong communities of Cubans, Dominicans and other immigrants (around 19.5% of the state’s population is foreign-born). Miami itself feels more like a Latin American city than a typical metropolis in the United States or Canada. As governor, Bush routinely championed international trade, including the Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) pact, which would have created a free-trade zone throughout much of the Western hemisphere. Bush’s wife, Columba — born in León in central Mexico — would be only the second foreign-born first lady in US history (Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, the sixth US president, was born in London in 1775). Even more than his brother, Jeb Bush would come to the White House with a greater-than-usual sophistication on Latin American issues. With a gross state product of over $840 million, Florida’s state economy is larger than any other US state, excepting California, Texas and New York. Its economy alone is a bit smaller than Indonesia’s entire national economy and a bit larger than Turkey’s.
If there’s one issue that will merit significant attention in the months ahead, however, it’s immigration reform, which straddles both domestic and foreign policy spheres. While Bush strongly condemned Obama’s recent executive order that will de-emphasize deporting many unlawful immigrants to the United States, he has been eloquent in the past in urging Congressional Republicans to enact reforms. In April, he elicited howls from the Republican Party’s conservative base when he called immigration, even illicit immigration, an ‘act of love,’ and called on Republicans to show greater sensitivity for the motivations and the lives of migrants who come to the United States seeking better futures for themselves and their families.