Jeb Bush Gets American Power
The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will … dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.
– Ronald Reagan, May 17, 1981, Notre Dame University
As I wondered through the Reagan Library in the hours before Governor Jeb Bush’s first major foreign policy speech this past week, I was struck by the similarities between what Reagan found when he entered office to the world the next U.S. president will encounter. By 1980, America had been embarrassed by Iran, was on the back foot against the Soviet Union, had seen its military forces “hollowed” out, and generally believed it was in an inevitable decline — a “crisis of the spirit in our country” as President Carter put it. Our policy against the global expansion of communism was to contain it and to cut deals with our enemies rather than try to defeat them.
Though he won’t admit it, President Obama has backed the United States into containment strategies against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as Iran, rather than forcefully enunciating American ideals and aggressively executing a strategy to defeat the threats to the United States and our allies.
It was in this frame of mind that I sat down in to listen to Bush — whose presidential campaign I support — give the first detailed set of ideas and actions thus far in this campaign cycle to confront and defeat the so-called Islamic State. He started with the fundamentals: defining the enemy. Bush began his remarks by describing ISIL and the broader threat it represents in plain language — “radical Islam…possessed by the same violent ideology that gave us 9/11.” ISIL is “the focus of evil in the modern world;” “a genocidal terrorist army” gaining ground, met only by an “incremental” approach of “creeping U.S. involvement.”
The governor called President Obama and, by extension, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to account for the disastrous decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq, and therefore paving the way for ISIL. He laid out a vision for taking the offensive to not just contain but truly destroy and degrade ISIL, as well as a plan to re-establish America’s badly damaged relationships with its Middle East allies such as Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE. Unlike any candidate thus far, Bush went beyond entertaining but unrealistic sound bites such as “seize their oil” and put some meat on the bones. Bush correctly explained that the ISIL threat in Iraq and Syria will require different approaches in each country. For Iraq he laid out five actions: broaden efforts to train and equip the Iraqi Army, work with the Sunni tribes, make American airpower more effective with forward air controllers, potentially embed U.S. forces directly with Iraqi units, provide greater support to the Kurds, and seek political reconciliation in Baghdad.
True, these points are not drastically different that the current U.S. strategy developed by the Obama administration. However, Bush repeatedly pointed out that the administration must actually carry through with its grandiose rhetoric and forcefully execute the strategy so that our allies and enemies believe the United States is serious, as has been persuasively argued by Iraq experts here at War on the Rocks.
Bush is right to explain that the message America sends is at least as important as the strategy. Right now, governments in the region and their populations do not believe the United States is with them for the long haul, and that Americans are not true partners in a fight that is, for them, one against an existential threat.
On the subject of Syria, Bush admonished Obama and Clinton for allowing the situation to so deteriorate to the point that the United States is left with nothing but bad options. However, Bush rightly stated that the United States cannot continue to abdicate leadership. In that spirit, he offered the following solutions for the Syrian civil war: a better coordinated campaign that de-conflicts the sometimes unhelpful efforts of our allies and disentangles moderates from extremists; a more effective and better resourced training effort; the establishment of multiple safe zones in Syria beyond the one announced on the Turkish border; and a no fly zone over all of Syria.
The no fly zone was perhaps the most surprising and drastic measure in Bush’s plan. Not only would it stop Assad’s air force from committing its atrocities such as dropping barrel bombs on civilians, but it would stop Iranian flights providing supplies and soldiers to bolster Assad’s army.
As such, Bush’s plan involves taking on Assad and ISIL in Syria. The United States must back the forces of moderation and liberalism to provide a stable future for Syria. One of the main reasons the United States has been able to recruit only a paltry number rebel fighters is that they want to fight Assad, not just ISIL. To gain the full support of the moderate rebels and America’s allies in the Persian Gulf, it must be official U.S. policy to take on the brutality represented by the Assad regime as well as ISIL. The implication there is that Bush is also willing to challenge Assad’s Iranian backers in contrast with the Obama administration’s ongoing placation to secure a nuclear deal.
Of course Bush’s strategy was laid out on the assumption that the United States has a military capable of executing it, and he pledged to re-build America’s armed forces. I was thrilled to hear Bush recognize the efforts and sacrifices of the intelligence community. It was wonderful to hear the professionals there recognized rather than subjected to more of the vilification they have received of late.
Bush was asked whether the United States should defend Christians being persecuted in Iraq and Syria. He responded succinctly, “But for us Who?” Who will stand up for Christians worldwide if the United States won’t?
Bush concluded by saying that he has no problem with soft power, as long as a hard part is behind it. The Obama foreign policy has been one of grandiose talk, powerful speeches, and then no action. In a line we are likely to hear often in the coming months, Bush challenged the audience to name a country where U.S. relations are better now than seven years ago. The answer? Cuba and Iran. Reagan understood that tough credibility lessened the chance of boots being deployed on the ground. So does Jeb Bush.
After spending several hours at the Reagan Library and hearing this speech, I was reminded of the power of positive leadership, big ideas, and realistic plans to achieve them. A year after the transition from Carter to Reagan, little had actually changed at home or abroad except for something that started as an intangible and then became very tangible: Americans had a leader who defined communism for the evil that it was, laid out a positive vision of America’s future, and embarked on a strategy to achieve it.
Michael G. Waltz is the author of the recently released book, Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan, which details his experiences with Afghanistan both as a Green Beret and a policy-maker in the White House and Pentagon. He is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as the Co-Founder of and a Principal in Askari Associates, a strategy and policy firm serving clients in the Middle East and North Africa.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore