Jeb's Foreign-Policy Problem

Bush, like his father and older brother, wants to make the world safe for commerce. It's not a message GOP primary voters are likely to embrace.

Jim Young/Reuters/TheAtlantic

On Wednesday at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Jeb Bush declared that “I’m my own man and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences.” But the speech itself undermined his claim. In two very different ways, Jeb’s speech made it unmistakably clear: He’s a Bush.

First, like his father and brother, Jeb has an awkward relationship with words. Within minutes of taking the stage, he declared that the Obama administration’s foreign-policy “problem is perhaps best demonstrated by this administration’s approach to Iraq … excuse me, Iran.” Not the best start to a speech designed to get himself out of his brother’s shadow. Jeb, like his famous relatives, has particular trouble with prepositions. Iran poses “an existential threat on Israel.” The United States must “return to the responsibilities that come of being the world’s leading power.” America must help “lessen the dependency that Russia now has on top of Europe.” The White House “has lobbed leaks and personal insults to Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

And dear God, the meaningless verbiage:

“Our words and actions must match. So that the entire world knows that we say what we mean and mean what we say. … This administration talks, but the words fade. … Hashtag campaigns replace actual diplomacy and engagement. Personal diplomacy and maturity is replaced by leaks and personal disparagement.”

At this rate, Jeb isn’t only going to make Hillary Clinton look like a fresh face. He’s going to make her look like an inspiring orator, too.

But the more important way in which Jeb revealed his family pedigree wasn’t stylistic. It was ideological. In a 4,000-word speech, Jeb mentioned the word “Islamic” once, the word “Muslims” twice, and never mentioned the words “Islam” and “jihad” at all. In today’s GOP, that’s astonishing. For months now, the biggest Republican foreign-policy applause line has been that Barack Obama is too politically correct to talk about the problem with Islam. Ted Cruz likes to say that the 9/11 hijackers “weren’t a bunch of ticked-off Presbyterians.” And when he attacks the Obama administration for not defending freedom, the first examples he gives are of Christians persecuted in Muslim countries. Bobby Jindal warns against admitting into the United States “non-assimilationist Muslims [who] establish enclaves and carry out as much of sharia law as they can without regard for the laws of the democratic countries which provided them a new home.” Mike Huckabee says that, “everything [Obama] does is against what Christians stand for, and he’s against the Jews in Israel. The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.”

In today’s Republican Party, Islam has become the new evil empire. Lindsey Graham says, “We are in a religious war.” Bill O’Reilly says America is fighting a “holy war.”

But Jeb Bush, like his brother before him, wants no part of it. Sure, he talks about destroying ISIS. Yet he refuses to describe the fight in the religious and civilizational terms now common in his party. The reason: He’s not a populist. Republican elites are, in Walter Russell Mead’s phrase, “Hamiltonians.” They want America to guarantee a stable world order where commerce can flourish. That’s Jeb in a nutshell. He doesn’t want to call out Islam. He wants to patch up America’s ties to its old friends in Riyadh and Cairo. “We have to rebuild our relationships with allies and key relationships in the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf states and of course Egypt. We will not be successful unless we invest in the much-needed coalitions and partnerships and develop the personal relationships that make it possible to garner worldwide support,” he told the crowd in Chicago. Try rousing a crowd of Iowa caucus-goers with that.

In contrast to GOP elites, the Republican rank and file are “Jacksonians.” They’re not interested in managing far-flung regions. They’re interested in destroying the savages who threaten America, and then, heading home. In the words of Ted Cruz, who best articulates this Jacksonian impulse, America should “bomb [ISIS] back to the Stone Age.” It should “go in with overwhelming force and then get the heck out.”

Politically, the problem with Jeb’s Chicago speech is that it was about foreign policy. His rivals, by and large, are merely using foreign policy to express the sense of Christian victimhood and superiority that lurks just below the surface in today’s GOP. The storyline is familiar: Yet again, Christians are under attack from ruthless, totalitarian foes. Last year it was the Hobby Lobby case. Now it’s ISIS.

Jeb deserves credit. His speech was neither demagogic nor hateful. It was also painfully dull. It would not rouse a single grassroots GOP activist. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the media keeps treating him like the Republican mostly likely to be his party’s presidential nominee.