It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: The 2016 candidate with the biggest liability on matters relating to foreign affairs is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Having served for four years as America’s chief diplomat, she has a record to parse. From Russia to Libya, From Syria to Burma, that record is not going to be an easy one to defend.
The press is busily attempting to neutralize Clinton’s biggest liability by casting about for ways in which they can frame the prospective field of Republican candidates as weak on foreign policy. This week, reports have begun to confuse former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s non-existent record on foreign affairs with his brother’s, the 43rd President of the United States, in order to frame him as unacceptable to the electorate. While Jeb Bush will encounter a number of hurdles in his effort to appeal to a general electorate, his blood relation to George W. Bush should not be among them.
“This president missed an opportunity to do the exact same thing in, in, in, um, Iraq,” Bush recently said according to The Washington Post. This “stumble” over the word “Iraq” apparently exposed the former Sunshine State governor’s insecurities surrounding the conduct of foreign affairs generally but also about George W. Bush’s record in office. This is a manufactured controversy.
“During incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe,” Jeb Bush has said of his brother’s legacy. That is undeniably true, and it a statement that confirms Bush’s ability to distance himself from his brother in a credible fashion.
But even The Post’s reporting indicates that Jeb Bush is crafting an approach to foreign affairs that would diverge dramatically from the neoconservative interventionism that characterized his brother’s administration:
Bush is consulting with people including Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official during George W. Bush’s first term; former deputy secretary of state and former World Bank President Robert Zoellick; and Meghan O’Sullivan, a former George W. Bush national security adviser on Iraq, according to another Republican foreign policy expert who has spoken with Bush but is not aligned with him or any other campaign and asked for anonymity in order speak frankly about those talks.
According to The Wall Street Journal, in fact, Jeb Bush is planning to model his approach to geopolitics after one of the most successful foreign policy presidencies of the 20th Century: His father’s.
“In private, Jeb Bush has expressed admiration for former Secretary of State James Baker and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, two veterans of his father’s administration known for advocating restraint and a tight focus on national interests, according to people familiar with those discussions,” The Journal reported.
Two senior members of both Bush administrations who are considered more aligned with foreign-policy pragmatists than with neoconservatives— Robert Zoellick and Richard Haass —are promoting Ms. O’Sullivan to Jeb Bush for the post of top national-security adviser. Mr. Zoellick’s perch as a top foreign-policy aide on Mitt Romney ’s campaign in 2012 ruffled feathers among more hawkish elements of the campaign.
Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the former Florida governor, declined to comment about Ms. O’Sullivan. “Gov. Bush has spent months meeting with policy experts, including foreign-policy experts from many different backgrounds,” she said.
In preparing for a likely presidential candidacy, Jeb Bush is turning to many of the same advisers who counseled his father and his brother, a group of national security experts who often disagreed during the previous Bush presidencies.
George H. W. Bush’s administration executed perhaps the most brilliant foreign policy coup in this nation’s history when it skillfully carved off one member of the Warsaw Pact after another and eventually created a soft space for the Soviet Union to unilaterally surrender after 46 years of cold warfare.
It was not preordained that the Cold War would conclude as peacefully as it did. When Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze met in Wyoming in the fall of 1989, acrimony and defiance rather than cooperation and mutual concession might have characterized their relationship. When Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met the following year, the president might have hedged on endorsing collective European security structures or deferred to the Soviet Union’s preference for a gradual reunification of Germany. But he pressed his advantage while simultaneously proposing “a mini-Marshall Plan” for the Eastern Bloc so as to ensure the post-Soviet space would not break apart violently. When Soviet hardliners attempted to prevent the USSR from dissolving by force, Washington could have easily overreacted. Even endorsing the dissolution of the Soviet government, a position that Bush’s government steadfastly refused to adopt both before and during the August 1991 coup, might have exacerbated a dangerous situation.
In a century of victories over despotism, George H. W. Bush’s administration’s pragmatism, patience, and self-assurance resulted in the West’s greatest triumph. The 41st president’s administration established the post-Cold War peace that has served as the basis for the global geopolitical order that, while increasingly shaky, remains in place today.
To impugn Jeb Bush’s record on foreign affairs based on his blood relations is lazy, but if that is the course the press is going to take then it should be comprehensive. If George W. Bush is a liability, George H. W. Bush is an undeniable asset. Jeb Bush will have a difficult time appealing to the electorate for a variety of reasons, but his family’s record as custodians of American interests overseas is not among them.