A family affair: Why Jeb Bush's foreign policy is just as bad as his brother's

It would seem Jeb learned nothing from his brother's failures in the Middle East

Jeb Bush
(Image credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Jeb Bush this week delivered a major address on foreign policy, focusing mostly on the Middle East. If he wanted to distance himself from his brother's disastrous failure as commander-in-chief, he could not have failed harder, short of maybe biting the head off a fruit bat and vowing a blood oath to personally execute every Muslim on the planet.

Where he speaks of historical fact, he is grossly mistaken. Where his policy is not insanely belligerent, it is misguided, hopeless, or simply confused. Under no circumstances should he be allowed anywhere near the controls of the most powerful military on the planet.

Bush blames President Obama for everything that has gone wrong in the Middle East, from the rise of ISIS to the civil war in Syria. He argues that Obama lacks sufficient strength, by which he means approaching every situation like a chest-thumping silverback gorilla in the grips of amphetamine psychosis. It's the classic neoconservative approach: There is no situation that cannot be solved by sufficient aggressiveness and will.

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His stance relies heavily on an utterly ridiculous account of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq. Bush claims that his brother had the war on the right track, but then Obama's weak-kneed withdrawal of the troops in 2011 led to chaos and eventually ISIS.

As Peter Beinart carefully explains, this is garbage history. The surge did succeed in tamping down violence for a time, helped along by the Sunni Awakening. But the entire point of that effort was to make space for political reconciliation between the Shiite-controlled government and the largely Sunni insurgency. In that, it was a total failure. Nuri al-Maliki, then the Iraqi prime minister, was persecuting the Sunnis before the surge was even over, leaving them unwilling to fight ISIS when the time came.

Furthermore, as Fred Kaplan points out, it was George W. Bush (not Obama) who negotiated the original Iraq withdrawal timeline in 2008. When the Iraqi government insisted U.S. troops leave in 2011, Obama had little option aside from re-invading the country.

Both George W. Bush and Obama perhaps deserve some blame for not pushing harder for political reconciliation, but in general it is very difficult to micromanage the politics of a post-dictatorship foreign nation that has just been stomped into fragments.

Unsurprisingly, Jeb Bush also loathes the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. He even implies that Iran is behind the rise of ISIS: "Iran, its ally [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, its terrorist proxy Hezbollah, and the sectarian militias it sponsors have fueled the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, that have helped give rise to ISIS." This is a piece of gross dishonesty right out of the Bush family handbook — don't state outright that there's a connection, but repeat the implication of one over and over until the association takes hold by osmosis. In 2002, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney used similar tactics to trick 72 percent of Americans into believing Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.

In reality, of course, Iran and ISIS are bitter enemies, and Iranian troops make up many of the quality forces fighting ISIS in Iraq. Bush is not just dishonest, but his policy is also working at cross-purposes.

This strategic incoherence is characteristic of the Bush approach. Could we make nice with Iran or Assad to fight ISIS, even temporarily? Nope, we must confront all three simultaneously! He mentions Egypt and Saudi Arabia as key allies, but does not mention the disastrous Saudi intervention going on in Yemen right now, despite the fact that the chaos there has created a major opening for al Qaeda. There is no sense of prioritization, just a random list of bad guys.

Worst of all is his Syria policy. When it comes to Iraq, Bush does not really propose to do anything that Obama is not already doing — support the Kurds, conduct some airstrikes, and so forth. But he wants to get hip-deep in the Syrian conflict — identifying the moderate Syrian forces, uniting them against both ISIS and Assad, then making sure Assad isn't replaced by somebody worse. But there basically are no moderate Syrians, much less any that Bush could "unite." Instead, this would very likely commit America to another state-building project in a shattered post-dictatorship nation whose ethnic groups are at each other's throats!

George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was one of the worst mistakes in the history of American foreign policy for many reasons, but foremost among them was sheer arrogance. He thought knocking over a repressive dictatorship halfway around the world and replacing it with a parliamentary democracy would be easy, requiring little expertise. Instead it was a jaw-dropping maelstrom of bloody horror that exceeded the worst predictions of his critics. Jeb Bush lived through all that, but appears to think this time we'll get it right. We just have to try extra-hard.

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