The World According to Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush
Bush offered few answers in his first foreign policy speech of his undeclared presidential campaign. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

When Jeb Bush delivered his first foreign policy speech of his undeclared presidential campaign, he offered a veritable tour de globe—chiding the Obama administration's performance on everything from ISIS to Ukraine to Cuba. But the most important line he delivered, one calculated for maximum effect, was to distinguish himself from the presidents in his own family. "I'm my own man," he said on Wednesday.

As Bush readies for a presidential bid, the ex-Florida governor used his speech at the Chicago Council on World Affairs to stake out what he called "liberty diplomacy," a principle for spreading democracy. He also offer full-throated support for international trade agreements and Israel. Call it pandering or conviction or both, but Bush noted that he'd take five trips to Israel and that "the highlight reel of my life" could include his forging a commercial agreement with Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when Bush was Florida's commerce secretary in the early 1990s.

Bush also defended the decision of House Speaker John Boehner to invite current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress later this winter. "I for one am really eager to hear what he has to say," Bush said.

Many Democrats including the president and vice president have said that they will not attend the address which promises to be a rare, if not unprecedented congressional forum whereby a foreign leader addresses Congress primarily to criticize the sitting administration. Netanyahu is concerned about the administration's role in multilateral talks with Iran about nuclear weapons development—not to mention fighting a close electoral battle back home. For his part, Bush heartily denounced the Obama administration's approach charging it was trying to regulate Iran's nuclear program as opposed to the longtime policy of trying to eliminate it.

Not surprisingly, Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish, positioned himself as something of an expert on Latin and South America. He noted that he lived in Caracas in the 1970s as a bank official and learned all about cloth diapers because Pampers were an expensive $1 each. When it came to the White House's decision to normalize relations with Cuba, Bush portrayed the president as a poor negotiator whose easing of the travel ban would help the Castro brothers more than the Cuban people. He also posited that falling oil prices would lead energy-rich Venezuela to reduce support to the island, which in turn would have destabilized the Cuban regime. When one audience member noted that the collapse of the Soviet Union had not destabilized the Castros, Bush argued that that was different—but not very effectively.

Throughout the nearly one-hour speech, followed by a questions-and-answer session with the audience, Bush got off some good shots at the Obama administration. He criticized the White House for withdrawing troops from Iraq too rapidly. Bush also took a shot at Obama for declaring a "red line" in Syria about the use of chemical weapons and then abandoning it.

But many of his arguments actually underscored the problems facing the next U.S. president, such as rolling back the Islamic State (ISIS). Bush blamed the rise of ISIS on Obama's withdrawal from Iraq, offered no constructive strategy to vanquish the group. Similarly, no 2016 candidate has convincing ideas about how to convince Russia to withdraw from Ukraine now that it has gobbled up Crimea and threatens to consume more territory. Bush said that 4 percent annual growth in the U.S. would bolster America's foreign policy. Plausible, but how?

In other words, Bush sees the world as a reasonable man would—it's woes and its opportunities—but he has a long way to go to make a convincing case that there's much he can do to change it.