Jeb Bush's war dilemma

The emergence of foreign policy as a critical consideration in the 2016 presidential election is both an opportunity and a peril for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as he struggles to revive a campaign begun with high expectations but now apparently on life support.

The Islamic State has intruded in the American political equation with its Paris terrorist attacks. The presidential primaries are now much more about selecting the next commander-in-chief, elevating the value of leadership experience.


Although Jeb Bush never served in the military at any level, he ran a large state government for two terms, is the son of one American president who led a successful war in Iraq and the brother of another who invaded Iraq and deposed its leader, though with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Therein lies the dilemma. Under the circumstances, the youngest Bush can hardly trade on his famous family name beyond tapping into considerable financial support from major Republican donors loyal to the Bush heritage, and offering himself as a member of the party establishment currently besieged by politically inexperienced outsiders.


As the outsiders and others beat the war drums for a much more aggressive posture against the Islamic State, Jeb Bush has the challenge of projecting himself as the tried and true adult in the pack. Until recently, he has hardly campaigned as such, seeking instead to convey strength along with prudence that has only succeeded in creating doubts about his resolution to tackle the fearsome foreign adversary.

While Mr. Bush presents himself as a senior party leader dedicated to preserving and advancing conservative Republicanism, in the early going he has come across as excessively accommodating, compared to the flame-throwers like Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina and even the soft-spoken Ben Carson.

Amid the crowded GOP field of White House aspirants, Mr. Bush has the financial reserves to hang in there, thanks to a bulging super-PAC. He obviously hopes the war nerves will generate a more approving second look at him as the party faithful assess the scary potentialities of a Mr. Trump, Dr. Carson or Ms. Fiorina nomination.

But the prospect of a third Bush presidency, especially one against the backdrop of two Bush war presidencies that would face an avalanche of Democratic and minority-voter opposition, would raise the possibility of a major defeat for the party in the general election.

The former Florida governor didn't help himself in the early stages of the campaign, in responding to a question by saying he would have invaded Iraq as his brother did. He soon backtracked, pleading he misunderstood the question. Later, a weak debate confrontation with fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, previously a protege, contributed to his political slide in the polls.

By last Sunday, in the wake of the Paris attacks, Mr. Bush voiced a harder line on NBC News' "Meet the Press." He said the Obama administration saw fighting the Islamic State "as a law-enforcement exercise," declaring: "We should declare war and harness all the power that the United States can bring to bear, both diplomatic and military ... to take out ISIS. We have the capabilities to do this. We just haven't shown the will."

Mr. Bush said he would establish a no-fly zone over Syria, link up with the peshmerga and Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, embed U.S. troops in the Iraq military and create safe zones. Asked if that would mean putting "some boots on the ground, he said, "Absolutely. And it should be designed by our military without their hands tied. ... We can't do it alone" he said, "but we need to lead. ... That's what I want (Obama) to do. I want him to lead."

Such talk could cause many Republicans to take a second look at him. But it also would invite Democratic comparisons with his impetuous older brother, whose war based on flawed intelligence and the nightmare aftermath has tarnished the Bush family brand, at least in Democratic and some independent circles. And Republican voters who equate a Hillary Clinton presidency with a national disaster may well weigh a Jeb Bush nomination as too high a risk to take next year.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is