Jeb, the anti-Trump

Jeb Bush’s foreign policy speech at the Reagan Library yesterday merits careful attention. In a campaign for the Republican nomination dominated so far by Donald Trump’s verbal antics, this speech ranks as the most serious effort yet to challenge Barack Obama’s approach to threats from the Islamic State and Iran.

I won’t quarrel much with the Governor’s analysis of the current situation. Yes, the Islamic State in particular and Islamic extremism in general are more of a threat today than they were in 2009, even if American civilian deaths from terrorist acts since 9/11 have been minimal. Iran is a bad actor likely to cause more problems in the Middle East once sanctions are lifted. The situation in Syria, which Iran has exacerbated with support to Bashar al Assad and Hizbollah, is catastrophic and needs a more effective approach.

But Bush confuses cause and effect in ways that make his policy prescriptions screwy. It is apparent that the mainly military approach both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken to fighting Islamic extremism in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen has made the situation worse, not better. Yet in Iraq Jeb suggests we only need to do more and better  on the military front in order to fix the situation. I don’t see any reason to believe that will work well. Nor is his hand-waving confidence about Iraqis “coming through for their country” convincing.

The Iraq war is the basis for much of what Bush thinks Obama has gotten wrong. In Bush’s narrative, the “surge” was a military success that Obama squandered by withdrawing American troops. Only by showing more military resolve region-wide can the US reverse that mistake.

But that is a false account of what actually happened. Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq on a schedule negotiated and agreed by the George W. Bush Administration. Republicans neglect that fact, because it disrupts their portrayal of the Obama Administration as weak, vacillating and prone to ignore the importance of military power. When challenged, they claim that George W. thought the agreement would be renegotiated. Obama tried that and failed, not because he was weak, vacillating and prone to ignore the importance of military power but because political sentiment in both the US and Iraq leaned heavily against a continuing US military presence.

If anyone is to be blamed for the rise of the Islamic State’s takeover of Sunni portions of Iraq, it is Nouri al Maliki, who was hand-picked as prime minister by the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration compounded that error when it backed Maliki for a second term even though his party had lost its plurality in parliament. Maliki thereafter proved himself an aggressive Shia sectarian who alienated both Sunni and Kurds, thereby weakening the Iraqi state and setting the stage for the ISIS takeover. It is vital always to remember that the problems in Iraq and generally in the region are at their heart political, not military.

But that narrative is too complicated for Jeb Bush. He prefers a simpler one that echoes his older brother’s worldview:

What we are facing in ISIS and its ideology is, to borrow a phrase, the focus of evil in the modern world.

I can think of a lot of other foci of evil in the modern world, and I’d have thought that “axis of evil” was a Manichean phrase no one would want to echo, given its association with the catastrophic mistake of invading Iraq and the less catastrophic but still serious mistake by George W. of failing even to try to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran before it had installed almost 20,000 centrifuges and enriched enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

On that subject, Jeb takes up the prevailing Republican unequivocal opposition to the nuclear deal. He offers no idea what his alternative is. He promises to undo the alleged damage Obama has done if elected, but of course withdrawal from the deal at this point would also have consequences he fails to consider: either Iran will race for nuclear weapons or the Europeans, Russians and Chinese will implement the deal and lift sanctions. The US then ends up either 1) having no alternative to war (without any allies except Israel), 2) watching its European allies make common cause with Moscow and Beijing against American efforts to unilaterally enforce sanctions. This is no formula for restoring American leadership, which is what Jeb says he wants to do.

Only on Syria does Bush offer any substantial suggestions worth examination: protected zones in parts of Syria and a no-fly zone over the whole country. Assad, not just ISIS, would be his target. Those are propositions President Obama has resisted because they take the US down the slippery slope towards greater involvement in the chaos that the multi-sided Syrian civil war their has generated. But  his refusal to get involved hasn’t improved the situation or made it easier to solve. We shouldn’t have to wait for a new president to correct course on Syria.

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