For Jeb Bush, the timing couldn’t have been worse. While he was struggling on Wednesday to explain his views on his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, his one-time protégé and now GOP presidential rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was artfully burnishing his foreign policy credentials with a major speech in New York.
It is far too early to discount Bush’s prospects for garnering the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. The former two-term Florida governor and brother of former GOP president George W. Bush for now rides relatively high in the national polls and is raking in tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions that will assure that he runs a first-rate campaign.
Yet his unfathomable bumbling and stumbling in explaining whether he would have supported the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein – resulting in responses ranging from “yes” to “I don’t know” – has left him in a weakened state and vulnerable to Rubio’s repeated assertions that Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are part of the “failed leadership of the past.”
“The 21st century requires a president who will answer that question with clarity and consistency, one who will set forth a doctrine for the exercise of American influence in the world, and who will adhere to that doctrine with the principled devotion that has marked the bipartisan tradition of presidential leadership from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan,” Rubio said during an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
He denounced Clinton as "hypocritical" for endorsing international engagement but failing to speak out in support of a free trade agreement that Obama is struggling to win support for on Capitol Hill. Seemingly responding to pressure from liberal Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to oppose a new trade pact with countries along the Asian Pacific rim, Clinton has had little to say about the controversy although she supported free trade agreements in the past.
"Those such as Secretary Clinton, who preach a message of international engagement and 'smart power,' yet are not willing to stand up to special interests and support free trade, are either hypocritical or fail to grasp trade's role as a tool of statecraft that can bolster our relationships with partners and create millions of American jobs," Rubio said.
Rubio, 43, a first-term senator and former speaker of the Florida House, is the proverbial young man in a hurry. Yet he has a long way to go to convince voters that he has the experience and wherewithal to become the nation’s next president and commander in chief.
He has had to live down the embarrassment of going dry-mouthed while delivering the Republicans’ formal response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in February 2013 and reaching off camera for a bottle of water. He subsequently disavowed his bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 that included a pathway to citizens for millions of illegal immigrants.
Just recently, during deliberations by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then the full Senate on legislation granting Congress the right to review the final version of a U.S. – Iran nuclear non-proliferation agreement, he twice backed down or lost in pressing for a potentially “poison pill” amendment that would have required Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Yet in just the few weeks since the son of two Cuban refugees formally announced his candidacy in Miami, Rubio has used his brash, youthful self-confidence and commanding speaking style to overshadow Bush on foreign policy and defense – two issues that gradually are eclipsing the economy as a leading concern of voters in the wake of the rise ISIS and other jihadist terrorists.
“The prosperity of our people now depends on their ability to interact freely, and safely, in the international market place,” Rubio said Wednesday. “Turmoil across the world can impact American families almost as much as turmoil across town. It can cause the cost of living to rise, or entire industries to shed jobs, and crumble; and so today, as never before, foreign policy is domestic policy.
“Sadly, I believe President Obama often disagrees with that simple truth,” he added. “He entered office believing America was too hard on our adversaries, too engaged in too many places, but if we only took a step back and did more nation building at home—he enacted hundreds of billions of dollars in defense cuts that left our Army on track to be at pre-World War Two levels, our Navy at pre-World War One levels, and our Air Force with the smallest and oldest combat force in its history.”
“These are the three pillars of my doctrine: American strength, the protection of our global economy, and a proud advocacy for America's core values. This approach will restore American leadership to a world badly in need of it.”
Bush, 62, has repeatedly declared that he is “his own man” and marches to a different political and policy drumbeat than those of his brother and father, former President George H.W. Bush. During a major foreign policy address in Chicago last February, Bush veered into treacherous political terrain as he sorted through his brother’s blunders and occasional triumphs during the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq after 9/11.
Speaking in the passive tense popular with politicians trying to dance around an unpleasant subject that upsets as many Republicans as Democrats, Bush told a gathering of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.” On the Bush administration’s long-discredited assertion that Iraq president Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction that justified an invasion in 2003, Jeb Bush said his brother fell victim to faulty intelligence.
On Wednesday, Bush was asked a number of times by reporters how he was different from his father and brother. He glibly joked, “I’m much better looking than my brother, I’m much younger.” When further pressed for an answer, he said that he is running in a much different political environment today in which his family is no longer revered by many in the party. “Of course I have differences with everyone previous president,” he said, but without elaborating.
When a reporter in Reno, Nev., asked him whether he would have supported the 2003 Iraqi invasion given the intelligence known today that Iraq didn’t possess weapons of mass destruction, Bush once again acknowledged that his brother made some mistakes, but then quickly praised him for ordering the 2007 U.S. troop sure in Iraq.
Then on Thursday during a town hall meeting in Tempe, Arizona, Bush said without prompting that “Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged, I would have not gone into Iraq.”
According to The Washington Post, many Republican hawks are increasingly troubled by Bush’s muddled responses and are questioning whether he will be able to make a convincing case for an interventionist foreign policy that just about everybody in the party except Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) strongly favors. Paul, a libertarian, has long argued against an overly aggressive U.S. foreign policy and military presence overseas, although he has come around in supporting President Obama’s war strategy against ISIS.
He dismissed Bush’s statements on Iraq as an “incredibly fumbled answer,” according to Politico.”
Almost lost in the din of Republican hooting over Bush’s handling of the Iraq question was Rubio’s quiet distancing of himself from the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. Rubio has said as recently as March that the invasion of Iraq war was a good idea because the world was a better place without the tyrant Saddam Hussein.
But on Wednesday, he allowed as how he would not have been in favor of the invasion if he had been in the Senate at the time and voting on that question.
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