Jeb Bush’s ‘Serious’ Foreign Policy Is Not Serious

The Republican candidate blames Obama for “unleashing” Syria’s humanitarian crisis and “creating” Israel’s greatest existential threat.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Jeb Bush fashions himself the thinking man’s Republican candidate for president. Donald Trump, he declared late last month, is “not serious.” When it comes to foreign policy, Trump hasn’t “thought these things through.” Trump is “not taking the responsibility—the possibility of becoming the president of the United States really seriously.”

So what are Jeb’s well-thought-out, serious foreign-policy views? He offered a few on Monday in what aides dubbed an important speech aimed at resetting his presidential campaign. And they were insane.

On Syria, Jeb said that, “Red lines get crossed without consequence, unleashing a humanitarian crisis as 4 million Syrian refugees flee their native land.” Let’s unpack this. In August 2012, Barack Obama told reporters that, “a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around [Syria] or being utilized. That would change my calculus” on using American military force. A year later, in August 2013, after the United States determined that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had indeed “utilized” chemical weapons, the U.S. president announced that he would launch air strikes in Syria in retaliation. Then, in September, facing a Congress likely to deny him authorization for war, Obama backed off these proposed strikes and allowed Secretary of State John Kerry to cut a deal with Russia to peacefully verify that Syria had destroyed its chemical-weapons stockpile.

There’s plenty to criticize here. But Jeb’s claim that all this “unleash[ed]” a “humanitarian crisis as 4 million Syrian refugees flee their native land” is absurd. The armed rebellion against Assad’s regime began in the summer of 2011, more than two years before Obama allowed his “red line” to be “crossed without consequence.” By 2013, when Obama pulled back from air strikes, Syria’s civil war had already claimed 100,000 lives and displaced more than 1.5 million people from their homes.

To be sure, the refugee crisis has grown much worse since then. But even if you think Obama should have carried out his threat to bomb Assad in retaliation for using chemical weapons, how on earth would that have prevented Syria’s humanitarian disaster? At best, American air strikes would have deterred Assad from further chemical attacks. Yet they wouldn’t have stopped him from attacking Syria’s rebels, and the innocent civilians living among them, in lots of other horrifying ways. Obama’s rationale for bombing Assad was to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. He never claimed it would halt Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Indeed, dropping bombs on a country already shattered by war would likely have made Syria’s humanitarian crisis worse.

Then Jeb moved to Iran. “Our president,” he declared, “has negotiated an agreement that gives legitimacy to Tehran and does nothing to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” Nothing? The deal struck last summer slashes the number of centrifuges Iran can use to enrich uranium by two-thirds. It reduces Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent. It requires Iran to ship its spent plutonium fuel (the other pathway to building a nuke) out of the country and to fill the core of its plutonium reactor with concrete. It prevents Iran from building any new centrifuges for 10 years and from enriching uranium beyond 3.67 percent (you need 90 percent to build a bomb) for 15 years. Which is why six Nobel Prize-winning physicists said it imposes “much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework.”

There are reasonable criticisms of the deal, and Jeb may believe he could have cut a better one, though he’s never credibly explained how. But to say the deal does “nothing to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions” is laughable.

But not as laughable as what Jeb said next. “For the first time in the history of Israel,” declared the former Florida governor, “its greatest existential threat has been created by its greatest ally.”

It’s hard to know where to start. To begin with, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran’s nuclear program an “existential threat,” Israel’s top security professionals generally don’t. In 2009, Ehud Barak, who led the Israeli Defense Forces in addition to serving as Netanyahu’s former defense minister, said, “Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel.” In 2011, Tamir Pardo, a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA, said that when it comes to Iran, “The term existential threat is used too freely.” In 2012, another former head of the IDF, Dan Halutz, declared that, “Iran poses a serious threat, but not an existential one.” Earlier this year, Efraim Halevy, another former head of the Mossad, warned that “it is a terrible mistake to use the term ‘existential threat’ because I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel.”

To be clear, these security professionals don’t think Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel even if it did get a nuclear bomb. Jeb, by contrast, is saying Iran poses an existential threat now, even though Iran doesn’t have a nuke and has just agreed to the most stringent restrictions on a nuclear program ever negotiated. And not only that, he’s saying this existential threat was “created” not by Iran but by Barack Obama. In other words, the president of the United States, the same guy who has sold Israel more advanced weaponry than any American president in history, poses an “existential threat” to the state of Israel. That’s pretty close to saying, as Mike Huckabee did, that Obama is marching Israelis “to the door of the oven.”

Like Huckabee, Jeb has now suggested that Barack Obama—in effect, if not in intent—is the contemporary equivalent of Adolf Hitler. Just another day on the stump for the “serious” foreign-policy candidate for president of the United States.