I wouldn’t want to talk about the past either, if I were John Ellis Bush. I trust you caught that little moment last Friday, when he said, in response to questions about his “major foreign policy speech” coming this Wednesday, that running for president is not about “re-litigating anything in the past.”
Right. As Daniel Larison pointed out, no one running for president should be allowed to get anywhere near the Oval Office without giving voters a very full understanding of their assessment of American foreign policy in these last tumultuous and sanguinary 15 years. But for someone named Bush, that goes triple. It would be like Bernie Madoff’s brother trying to get a seat on the stock exchange while insisting that the past was irrelevant.
All right, Madoff is a bit of a stretch, I guess. But only a bit. We—the United States of America, under George W. Bush and his lieutenants—unleashed oceans of mayhem on the world, leading to many tens of thousands of deaths; leading to the rise of ISIS, which grew directly out of the failure of our favored government in Baghdad to deal reasonably with the Sunni population; and leading, finally, to some of the most shameful moments in modern American history (torture, black sites, and the rest). Gee, now that I put it that way, I think I actually insulted Madoff, who only stole money. The George W. Bush government did that too, in essence, with its $2 trillion, off-the-books war, on a scale Madoff could never have dreamed.
Now, Jeb Bush is of course his own man and is not his brother. But by God you’d better believe that voters have a right to know whether he thinks the wars his brother started were just, whether they were prosecuted intelligently or badly, what the particularly egregious errors were, and most of all what lessons he takes away from it all. Hillary Clinton is going to be asked, and asked, and rightly so, about her vote for the Iraq war. Jeb didn’t cast any such vote, true. But at the same time, one doubts he sat around the Christmas dinner table in 2001 trying to persuade his brother that invading Iraq was a lousy idea.
He should not even be taken seriously on the subject of foreign policy if he doesn’t address these matters. Since he says he’s not going to in Wednesday’s speech, so much for that. And anyway, everyone seems to have forgotten that he already gave a semi-major foreign policy speech barely more than two months ago, which you can watch here, before the Cuba Democracy PAC in Miami. The emotional points of the speech were 1) to demonstrate his fluency in Spanish and 2) to reiterate the reactionary position on Cuba that he’s held for many long years, and which only a minority of even Cuban Americans share.
But there were many other elements to it, notably his seven-point plan for how America can reclaim its rightful yada yada yada. And of course it was larded with rhetoric about Obama’s weakness and America’s alleged retrenchment under a president who’s bombed at least as many countries as Dubya did. Jeb actually did make one good point, one totally fair criticism of Obama—that words have to mean something. He cited the “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons. And I applaud him for saying that it’s wrong for politicians to thunder about “taking out ISIS.” I wrote a column last fall reproving Obama for that empty and counter-productive talk about “destroying” ISIS, so I’m with Jeb on that one, although he did not say in the Miami speech whether his criticism meant a) that we should be content to contain ISIS, if we can even do that, or b) we should send troops in and get into a real war. Perhaps he’ll give a clue Wednesday.
The larger problem—not so much for Bush as for those of us who might have to live under his presidency, both here and in the world’s hot spots—is this. Of course, Bush and all the rest of them have to bash Obama as weak and at the end of the day not really concerned with American strength and credibility since he is, as their base voters believe, not actually American. That’s job number one for any Republican presidential candidate—Obama is the devil. But then where do they go from there?
Where they go from there is to highly untenable destinations where most Americans have no desire to tread. Let me put it more bluntly: They go from there to greatly increasing the likelihood of more war, and this time with U.S. troops on the ground.
Take the Islamic State as the most obvious example. All right, Obama’s plan relies on a lot of what ifs. So what would they do that didn’t rely on a lot of what ifs? Answer: nothing. Because it’s impossible. The United States can’t make Saudi Arabia or Iran or Turkey do anything. As Scott Walker discovered on TV a couple of Sundays ago, when ABC’s Martha Raddatz boxed him in, if you want to say Obama isn’t doing enough, the only logical end point for you is to be willing to put U.S. troops on the ground.
I mentioned Iran above. So speaking of Iran: All the Republicans scorn Obama’s negotiating posture. Okay then. So…what? You won’t negotiate with Iran? How does that not mean that Iran will just develop a bomb anyway, but this time with utterly no chance of international supervision? How does that make anybody safer? Oh. You’re going to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb. I see. By doing what? By not being a secret Muslim like Obama? Sorry, that’s not going to work. The only way is by being willing to start a war with them. The same goes for Putin in Ukraine. Nobody likes him, or what he’s up to. The question to Bush and all the GOP candidates is whether what he’s doing in Ukraine is potentially worth American blood.
Obama has had his failures, particularly with regard to not doing more sooner to stop Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people in Syria. But a president’s first job is to ask him or herself: If this leads to my having to send our soldiers in, will the deaths be justified? If nothing else Obama takes that question seriously. Jeb Bush and his fellow candidates seem likely to be willing to box themselves into a rhetorical corner from which the commitment of troops may someday be inevitable, all because they have to stroke the base, and certain money people like Sheldon Adelson.
The first-job question is one they ought to take more seriously. And I know a certain predecessor of Obama’s who sure as hell should have taken that question more seriously. And if his younger brother believes the rest of don’t have the right to know what he thinks about all that, he doesn’t have a much better idea of what the presidency is than his brother did.