WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Jeb Bush staked out a robust vision for U.S. foreign policy in line with party doctrine on Wednesday and sought to ease concerns that he might be influenced by his powerful political family by insisting, “I’m my own man.”
A frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Bush said he would back a global strategy against Islamic State that “takes them out.”
But he offered no specifics on how to do this and avoided military threats that could reawaken memories of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq launched by his older brother, former President George W. Bush, over weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
Speaking at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the former Florida governor struck a balance between respecting the service of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and brother, while suggesting he would make decisions based on circumstances neither of them had to face.
“I’m my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences,” Bush said.
In a speech and question-and-answer session, Bush demonstrated a fluency in international issues that none of his potential rivals for the Republican nomination has matched to date.
A list of Bush foreign policy advisers suggested he is trying to split the difference between party hawks and pragmatists. Many of his advisers were important players in the administrations of the last three Republican presidents - the two Bushes and Ronald Reagan.
Bush largely stuck to standard Republican criticisms of the policies of President Barack Obama even while using similar language to the Democratic president. In September, Obama cited a relentless U.S. effort “to take out” Islamic State militants wherever they exist.
Bush questioned the concessions that Obama may be ready to make to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, criticized Obama’s diplomatic opening to Cuba, and said Obama is “feckless” for not providing defensive equipment to Ukraine as requested.
He said he looked forward to a speech in Congress by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed surprise that the White House was opposed to the visit from a key ally.
“We have lost the trust and the confidence of our friends. We definitely no longer inspire fear in our enemies,” he said.
His stances appeared aimed at boosting his foreign policy credibility with conservatives who are more likely to vote during the Republican primary battles while not scaring moderates with talk of sending troops abroad.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who was a White House adviser under George W. Bush, said Jeb Bush’s views were in line with the Republican Party mainstream and also many Democrats who have criticized the Obama administration.
Bush stuck to a pledge not to re-litigate the debates of past administrations but, when prodded, offered a view on the Iraq war launched by his older brother.
“There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure,” Bush said, but he gave his brother credit for a 2007 troop surge that helped stabilize Iraq and said the U.S. withdrawal ordered by Obama created a void filled by Islamic State. Asked if the United States should engage diplomatically with Islamic State, Bush said absolutely not.
Democrats accuse Jeb’s brother of giving rise to the current turmoil in the region with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The prolonged conflict damaged George W. Bush’s second term and his popularity. Twelve years earlier Jeb’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, assembled a global coalition to push Iraq out of Kuwait, a swift war that was far more popular at home.
Republicans say the jihadist fighters of Islamic State would never have gained footing if Obama had reached an agreement with the Iraqi government to leave a U.S residual force behind.
Bush is casting a wide net for advice on national security. An aide provided to Reuters a list of 21 diplomatic and national security veterans who will provide informal advice to Bush in coming months.
It includes people representing a wide spectrum of ideological views in the Republican Party. It includes James Baker, known for his pragmatism in key roles during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies, and former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, a hawk as deputy defense secretary who was an architect of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy.
Among others are two former secretaries of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley and a deputy national security adviser, Meghan O’Sullivan, as well as two former CIA directors, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden.
Reagan’s secretary of state George Schultz is also on the Bush list.
Democrats pounced on Bush’s claim to be his own man.
“We know that Jeb Bush is leaning on more than a dozen foreign policy advisers who were the architects of George W. Bush’s cowboy foreign policy agenda that damaged the country’s reputation abroad,” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Holly Shulman.
Editing by John Whitesides and Howard Goller