Republican Foreign Policy Gets Ugly: Jeb Bush Finds Inner Neocon, Promises More Intervention and War

With Donald Trump gaining outsized press attention, Jeb Bush has amassed a sizeable war chest and positioned himself to be the safe establishment pick after Trump’s expected implosion. However, Bush is hampered by his last name and reputation for moderation.

Yet on foreign policy, at least, he has turned hard right. So far the Republican candidates are pushing for intervention and war at most every turn. Lindsey Graham helps lead the Senate pro-war gang, Chris Christie cheerfully attacks civil liberties and peace, and Marco Rubio wants the U.S. military to make the world safe for democracy, business, and most everything in between. Campaign retreads Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee and newbies Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina sound equally determined to wreak death and destruction around the globe.

The few outliers don’t deviate very far. Rand Paul denounces nation-building but seems ready for war with Iran. While John Kasich opposed involvement in the Balkans and Ted Cruz rejected proposals to bomb Syria, both talk tough today.

For a time some observers wondered if Bush was more pacific than he let on. But he appears to be a true believer. He apparently really meant he would turn to his discredited brother for advice on the Middle East — a sentiment which alone should disqualify him from the presidency. In his speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs earlier this year he emphasized that he was his “own man,” but last week he embraced his brother’s misbegotten war-mongering in Iraq and advocated extending it to Syria.

Like other Republican presidential wannabees, Bush is utterly unreflective, oblivious to the consequences of U.S. policy.

Bush’s apocalyptic vision matches those of Christie and Rubio, who also have given set-piece foreign policy speeches. “Our security,” Bush said, is “in the balance.” Moreover, he charged: “The Obama-Clinton-Kerry team is leaving a legacy of crises uncontained, violence unopposed, enemies unnamed, friends undefended, and alliances unraveling” Indeed, “The world is slipping out of control,” he warned.

Like his brother, Bush played the humanitarian card: “our foreign policy must be routed in a critical principle. Let’s call it the liberty — let’s call it liberty diplomacy.” Indeed, “if we withdraw from the defense of liberty elsewhere, the battle of eventually comes to us anyway.” That’s nice rhetoric, but is demonstrably false. The world long has been filled with horror which Washington has chosen not to make its own — and it did not then become America’s own. World War I dramatically demonstrates the stupidity of joining other nations’ fights.

Bush also mimicked every other Republican in demanding more military spending. Indeed, he warned of moving “straight in the direction of the greatest risk of all — military inferiority.” Too whom he did not specify. “We are in the seventh year of a significant dismantling of our own military,” he claimed, which is simply false. Real spending continued to increase until 2012. America’s “military power must be rebuilt,” he argued, since to provide for the common defense is a primary duty of the government under the Constitution.” Actually, defending America is the federal government’s primary duty. Yet most of what the military does today is intervene overseas to defend wealthy allies, remake failed societies, kill other people’s enemies, and engage in social engineering. “Our military is not a discretionary expense,” said Bush. But defending and/or remaking most of the known world is.

In Bush’s view two and a half percent of GDP for the Pentagon is too low. What percentage is right? Complained Bush, the current level is “way lower than our historical average.” However, the real GDP is a dozen times as large as during WWII and eight times during the Korean War. Thus, one percent of GDP today provides a multiple of the resources during earlier times. “Our enemies or potential enemies will see [the current percentage] as a sign of weakness, and it’ll embolden them,” he warned. Actually, the unnamed “they” are more likely to look at force capabilities than GDP percentages. America remains far stronger than “them,” all of “them.”

As Ronald Reagan rightly observed, military spending should reflect the threat environment, which is vastly improved from Reagan’s time. Bush seemed to recognize this reality when he suggested a strategic review since “the world’s changed. I mean, we’re, the Soviets aren’t going to launch a tank attack across Eastern Germany into Germany.” Very true, which makes you wonder how he could speak of “multiplying” threats today when the biggest ones have disappeared. Since military spending is the price of one’s foreign policy, it makes more sense to launch a strategic review first, which would suggest fewer defense responsibilities and thus lower military outlays.

Bush retreats to standard GOP clichés. For instance, “American leadership” is important. Other administrations, he claimed, “have accepted the responsibilities of American power in the world with the belief that we are a force for good,” in contrast, naturally, to the Obama administration. Today America is “less influential in the world.” Of course, that’s bad, because, as he told the Reagan library audience last Tuesday: “Good things happen when America is engaged with friends and allies, alert to danger, and resolved to deal with threats before they become catastrophes.”

Alas, he ignored the dramatic loss of confidence in the U.S. resulting from his brother’s foreign policy debacles, and the fact that George W.’s attempt to “deal with threats before they become catastrophes” actually created multiple disasters. Jeb complained that “radical Islam has been spreading like a pandemic — across the Middle East, throughout Africa and to parts of Asia, even in the nations of the West, finding recruits in Europe and the United States.” It is no coincidence that the spread was fastest after George W. blew up the Middle East, with Barack Obama following suit in North Africa.

Bush had trouble handling questions about his brother’s policy in Iraq, before finally calling it “a mistake” and saying he would not have “gone in.” More recently, however, he declared that ousting Saddam Hussein was a “pretty good deal.” Maybe so, if you don’t count dead Americans, dead allied personnel, dead Iraqis, widespread sectarian violence, mass refugee flows, increased Iranian influence, regional instability, and the rise of the Islamic State. One can imagine Bush asking after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Bush misleadingly argued that ISIS “didn’t exist when my brother was president” and that a continued U.S. military presence “would not have allowed” the group to flourish. Last Tuesday he proclaimed that when his brother (mercifully) left office there was no caliphate. Today it exists because after the “brilliant, heroic, and costly” surge came the “withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary,” thereby “creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill — and that Iran has exploited to the full as well.”

This is false in almost every detail. ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which developed in response to George W.’s invasion. The group grew in opposition to the U.S. occupation and Shia-majority regime installed by Washington. Although badly battered, the ISIS-precursor survived the famed “surge” and more important “Sunni Awakening.” Alas, the surge did not foster sectarian reconciliation, as intended. ISIS exploded when the Sunni Awakening went into reverse in response oppressive sectarian policies from the Iraqi government. George W.failed to reconcile the contending factions, force the central government to stop targeting Sunnis, and win approval of a status of forces agreement and a continued U.S. military presence.

Obama only followed the Bush timetable. Explained U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno: “us leaving at the end of 2011 was negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration. And that was always the plan, we had promised them that we would respect their sovereignty.” Nor would a continuing presence of U.S. troops have achieved much, unless augmented and used in continuing anti-insurgency operations — contrary to the fervent desire of most Americans. And maintaining the military occupation would have provided a target for radicals of every sectarian viewpoint. Planning to get out is the only thing George W. got right.

Jeb Bush complained that Obama now “has no strategy to stop” ISIS, instead relying on “a minimalist approach of incremental escalation.” The latter’s mistake was involving the U.S. in a sectarian war in which virtually every Middle Eastern nation, from Turkey to Iran to Iraq to Saudi Arabia otherwise would have an incentive to fight. The group is evil but had not attacked America, focusing instead on fulfilling its regional ambitions. It has reached the limits of its natural expansion, largely Sunni areas. Destroying it still won’t be easy, but as such countries as Jordan and Turkey have better perceived the threat, they have begun to devote more resources to the effort. They won’t do so if Washington does the job for them.

Nevertheless, Jeb wants a new war dedicated to “throwing back the barbarians of ISIS, and helping the millions in the region who want to live in peace.” America has “to take the offensive, to keep it, and to prevail.” Which would mean what?

He didn’t want to speculate on how many Americans should remain in Iraq, but he cited the 10,000 level — for which George W. was unable to win Baghdad’s approval. Jeb also contended: “We must support the Iraqi forces.” As did his brother, creating a multi-billion dollar armed forces which acted as ISIS’s chief armorer. While Jeb didn’t call for U.S. combat forces, he would embed Americans in Iraqi combat units.

Further, Washington should “restart the serious diplomatic efforts that can help that country move in the right direction.” Has Bush paid any attention to Iraq’s (mal)development over the last dozen years? Iraqi leaders have chosen sectarian conflict. The U.S. would do better stepping back and letting the country fall apart rather than attempting to force Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to remain together. How many years of nation-building does Bush envision?

Even scarier, in his talk to the Reagan library Bush proposed that Washington join Syria’s civil war. He urged “a coordinated, international effort” to strengthen moderate forces. But America’s allies generally prefer anti-American radicals to largely ineffective “moderates.” The U.S. must “expand and vastly improve the recruitment and training of Syrian forces fighting ISIS,” he intoned. He blamed a lack of confidence in America. More likely, few Syrians are interested in fighting other insurgents at Washington’s behest.

Worse, Bush advocated not only a “no-fly zone” but “multiple safe zones,” which would require substantial and sustained U.S. military involvement. Confronting the much-weakened Damascus government would make a complete breakdown in Syria more likely. And put America in the center of increased chaos in yet another civil war in which the U.S. has no substantial interest. Once committed, Bush could ill afford to accept failure, encouraging him to double down with ground forces if necessary.

Bush’s quaint belief that he could create a force of “moderates” to defeat both Assad and ISIS is a fantasy; more likely the Islamic State’s flag would end up flying over Damascus. Then Bush undoubtedly would again attempt to blame Barack Obama for the resulting instability, death, and destruction. But what would Bush propose to do in response?

On Iran Jeb complained that the administration didn’t deal with Iran’s malignant regional behavior. True, because Washington focused on the far more important issue of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, which would greatly magnify other threats. On the nuclear issue Bush charged that “the goal has changed and the point of these negotiations isn’t to solve the problem, it’s to manage it.” Actually, the objective always was to prevent an Iranian nuke. But the Obama administration recognized the difficulty in achieving that end: there is no evidence that Tehran was prepared to surrender. Additional threats actually would have strengthened the case in Tehran for a weapon.

Bush also argued that “The administration no longer seeks to prevent nuclear enrichment. Now it seeks merely to regulate it.” Because Iran moved well beyond the zero option — while George W. refused to consider negotiations. Wishing for Tehran’s surrender is no strategy.  Jeb Bush offered no means other than additional sanctions, which would not have been matched by other nations: “the damage must be undone by the next president,” he intoned, even though killing the deal would end the international coalition and empower Iran.

His only other recommendation was to be “much more aggressive in supporting civil opposition to the regime in Iran.” How? Does he believe the Islamist regime would stand aside and allow increased international interference promoting its ouster? Tehran previously used sanctions and military threats to justify cracking down on opponents. Hardliners undoubtedly would do the same in the future.

Bush also argued that allies are good. “We have lost the trust and confidence of our friends,” he declared. But what they have done to warrant our confidence? Not much. Nevertheless, Bush contended that America’s “alliances need rebuilding.” In practice, that means increasing subsidies for rich industrialized states, most notably the Europeans, Israelis, Japanese, and South Koreans, who all are capable of defending themselves. Like the other GOP candidates, Bush pandered for votes by lavishing particular attention on Israel, even endorsing Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Bush’s alliance policy also means reducing criticism of authoritarian governments. For instance, he was particularly insistent about rebuilding “our relationships with allies and key relationships in the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf states and of course Egypt.” These along with Saudi Arabia are “important partners.” Even though we lavish aid and weapons on them, he argued that “we need to restore trust.” But all act in their interest, not that of America. And all have human rights records ranging from poor to horrid. Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is more repressive than Hosni Mubarak, whose misrule spurred the 2011 revolution. Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian state with no political or religious liberty. Yet Bush singled out Iran for its routine “human rights violations.” So much for Bush’s professed desire to promote democracy and liberty.

Further, fealty to allies means substituting foreign interests in place of our own. Bush declared that there should be “no light between our close allies, like Israel, like our neighborhood, like NATO. These are the alliances that have kept us safe.” Actually no. It almost invariably is the reverse: Washington has kept the allies safe. Yet other countries, whether designated as allies or not, invariably have different interests than America. During the Cold War Europe subsidized Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, traded with Cuba, refused to allow overflight for U.S. planes to bomb Libya, constructed a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union, and underfunded defense. Israel’s military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank tars America. Most of Washington’s allies — from Europe to the Middle East to Asia — threaten to drag America into unnecessary conflicts.

Finally, like other Republican presidential wannabees, Bush is utterly unreflective, oblivious to the consequences of U.S. policy. What motivates terrorists? Why do countries desire nuclear weapons? Might the fact that Washington wanders the globe droning, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations have an impact on other governments’ thinking? Might U.S. support for regimes which oppress their own and other people encourage attacks on Americans? Of course. This is classic blowback. While U.S. government behavior doesn’t justify terrorism, promiscuous intervention helps explain it. Terrorist attacks against Russia, Sri Lanka, Israel, Jordan, Spain, Great Britain, and many other states similarly reflect political objectives.

Most of the other Republican candidates sound similar to Bush, though without detailing their policies in a formal address. Virtually everyone promises brave new interventions and wars. Last election one unnamed Perry adviser told Foreign Policy that Perry “will distinguish himself from other Republicans as a hawk internationalist, embracing American exceptionalism and the unique role we must play in confronting the many threats we face.” Which sounds like virtually every Republican.

Ignoring George W. Bush’s disastrous escapade in Iraq, the GOP contenders believe that if only the president demonstrates “will” and “leadership” Washington can do whatever it likes without consequence. A return to these policies would mean more unnecessary death, chaos, and waste. Barack Obama is no pacifist, but at least he is reluctant to loose the Dogs of War. Not so most Republican candidates, including, it appears, Jeb Bush. America doesn’t need a rerun of Dubya’s disastrous presidency.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.