Bush Touts Plans to Combat ISIS, Assad, Iran
If elected president, Jeb Bush vowed Tuesday to use U.S. military power and “resolute” leadership to defeat radical Islam “wherever it appears,” to install a “stable” new government in Syria, and to undo any nuclear deal with Iran “immediately.”
During a foreign policy speech delivered at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, Bush sought to contrast his own bullet-point strategies aimed at the Islamic State and Syria with what he called the “idle, grandiose words” offered by President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But Bush’s remarks evoked those of the 43rd president, despite the former Florida governor’s ambition to distance his policies from the Iraq War that soured Americans on the presidency of his brother.
And his prescriptions for the defeat of ISIS and the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria also resembled some of Obama’s efforts, which Bush nevertheless condemned as “shortsightedness.”
Coming early in the primary season, Bush’s plunge into the Middle East with his own five-point plan for defeating ISIS and four points to tackle Syria was a political effort to navigate the vulnerabilities of two previous Bush presidencies, particularly leading into the next GOP presidential debate, scheduled for Sept. 16 (also at the Reagan Library).
Listening to his audience’s applause at the end of the event, Bush looked relieved. “Can you all move to Iowa?” he joked.
The Bush campaign also attracted media attention by billing the speech in advance as a muscular takedown of the former secretary of state. That preview, reinforced with speech excerpts, pierced the cable coverage surrounding Donald Trump and also sparked heated rebuttals from the Clinton team.
Yet, when the half-hour speech was over, Clinton was something of a bystander in Bush’s withering assessment of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. As secretary of state, Bush said Clinton embraced “soft power” but without “hard power behind it,” and he said she ultimately left office with “a failed record.”
Denouncing the administration’s foreign policy as “leading from behind,” Bush borrowed a phrase from Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech about the Soviet Union to describe Islamic terrorism in 2015 as the “focus of evil in the modern world.” His word choice also called to mind George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” rhetoric, in which the elder Bush sibling described the threat posed by Iran and “its terrorist allies.”
Echoing several other GOP presidential challengers, Jeb Bush discussed sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq to reinforce commitments for “the long haul,” an option a majority of Americans and many Iraqis say they oppose. To navigate past voters’ war fatigue, Bush remained vague about the number of U.S. forces necessary to realize the goals he staked out.
With approximately 3,500 U.S. forces in Iraq now, “more may be needed,” Bush said. “We don’t need, and our friends don’t ask for, a major commitment of American combat forces,” he added, his voice rising. But he said embedding U.S. forces with Iraqi units in combat territory would be effective. “It is simply not enough to dispense advice and training to local forces and then send them on their way and hope for the best.”
Bush previously declared, following days of hesitant responses at the outset of his formal candidacy, that he would not have invaded Iraq if he had been president at the time of the 9/11 attacks. On Tuesday, in describing what he called his “unyielding” commitment to end the threat of “global jihad,” Bush stepped lightly around his brother’s wake, even as he wagged an accusing finger at Clinton for initially opposing a troop surge in Iraq, before subsequently amending her position.
“No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially,” he continued, “yet in a long experience that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks, one moment stands out in memory as the turning point we’d all been waiting for.”
Bush described his brother’s 2007 deployment of 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq as “brilliant, heroic and costly,” resulting in progress that unraveled following Obama’s “crucial error” in withdrawing all U.S. combat forces by 2011. That decision, he argued, created a vacuum in Iraq that gave rise to ISIS.
“It is simply wrong to assert that ISIS arose in the vacuum after American troops left,” Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s campaign policy adviser and former State Department aide, told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Clinton’s campaign team said her opponent ignored facts, and history. It was George W. Bush who began negotiating a drawdown that required the withdrawal of forces after 2011 if Iraq would not agree to legal immunity for U.S. troops. Obama continued negotiations with the Iraqi government to try to complete a status of forces agreement under terms to which Bush had committed. But the two governments failed to reach an agreement.
Clinton’s team also reiterated her opposition to more American combat forces in Iraq to augment drone strikes and air bombardments against ISIS fighters.
“American boots on the ground cannot fix Iraq. Only Iraqis can fix Iraq, with our support, but not with our combat boots on the ground,” Sullivan said.
Asked to describe Clinton’s post-Obama strategy to defeat ISIS, if she is Obama’s successor, her aide said the Democratic frontrunner “welcomes the opportunity to debate” and will “have more to say in the weeks and months ahead.”
Recognizing that his audience Tuesday expected to learn what he’d do about Iraq and Syria as president, Bush looked ahead.
Listing five tenets of “my strategy” for Iraq, Bush said he would “support Iraqi forces” to break free of “Iranian influence”; put U.S. forces on the ground to call in bombing strikes; give U.S. troops a “greater range of action” and embed combat forces with Iraqi units; give the Kurds “everything they need to win”; and “restart diplomatic efforts” with regional partners to underscore that the United States is “there for the long haul.”
A plan to defeat Assad and support a “stable government” in Syria, Bush added, calls for coordinating international efforts with Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia “and others”; improving U.S. recruitment and training of rebel forces in Syria; establishing “multiple safe zones” in Syria; and establishing and enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria to protect its people from Assad’s attacks and to thwart Iran’s influence.
Bush urged Congress to scuttle the international nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by the United States and five other countries and backed by the United Nations. If the agreement goes forward later this year to lift sanctions on Tehran in exchange for controls on its nuclear weapons capabilities, he vowed as president to work in 2017 to unwind the agreement “immediately.”
“We have to push them back,” he added, referring to Iran’s Islamic hardliners.
Bush called the challenges inside Syria “complex” and “tough.” Defeating ISIS is “our duty,” he said, and to carry out that duty requires the defeat of Assad.
Bush said ISIS was no match for U.S. military superiority, Special Forces, and sophisticated training.
“We can take these guys on,” he concluded.