WARSAW, Poland – Former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush paid his respects to Poland’s tragic history and met with national leaders on Thursday to discuss America’s role in Europe, continuing his international tour in the run-up to his June 15 campaign launch.
While a number of candidates have struggled in their trips abroad – Mitt Romney’s own 2012 visit to Poland ended with his spokesman telling reporters on camera to “kiss my a–” – Bush has managed to keep things calm. It’s the home front where the trouble has occurred, as Bush’s pre-campaign team works to steady the ship after a major staff shakeup. And Bush has faced fresh scrutiny of a passage in a 1995 book he co-authored about the value of shaming unwed parents.
Presidential candidates often travel abroad to show off their foreign policy expertise and Bush, who as a governor was not as directly involved in international affairs as some of his rivals, is no exception.
Bush traveled quietly to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp, on Wednesday. On Thursday, he visited the Warsaw Rising Museum, which commemorates the Polish insurgency against the Nazis in 1944, and laid a wreath at a memorial wall with his wife, Columba, as local schoolchildren on field trips looked on. Later he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the site of an iconic speech by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
“We helped them become free, now they’re playing a constructive role to help other countries in the world to be free as well,” Bush said after meeting with business and civic leaders in Warsaw. “It’s very inspiring to me.”
While in Poland, Bush held meetings with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, his elected successor President-elect Andrzej Duda and Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna.
Walking delicately around one potential minefield, Bush met Radek Sikorski, who was the country’s parliamentary speaker before he resigned over a leaked tape of comments he made decrying the United States as a “worthless” ally. Asked about the meeting, Bush took a diplomatic tone, calling him a “friend of the United States and a supporter of the United States.”
“I was surprised by his comments, but the simple fact is he’s been a consistent believer that the United States can play a very constructive role,” Bush said. He speculated Sikorski may have been responding to “frustration” over a dispute concerning the deployment of a missile system in the country.
In general, Poland is considered friendly territory for Bush compared to Western Europe and Germany, where he briefly met Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier in the week at a conference hosted by her Christian Democratic Union party. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, is beloved for his role managing the breakup of the Soviet Union as president. His brother, President George W. Bush, worked to encourage closer ties with Poland, which broke with much of Europe in deploying troops to Iraq.
“George W. Bush was much more popular in Poland than in other European countries,” Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund, told reporters after meeting with Bush. “Republicans are important and popular in Poland. So this plays well.”
It’s not just family history that gives Bush a boost in Poland. It’s also a receptive audience for Bush’s main foreign policy message on his trip and often on the campaign trail back home – that the U.S. needs to aggressively confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over his interference in Ukraine. Poland and Estonia, which Bush is slated to visit on Friday and Saturday, are especially concerned about Russia, given their tortured history under Soviet rule. The Warsaw Rising museum Bush visited earlier provided plenty of reminders of these lingering tensions – it contains a large section describing Soviet efforts to discredit and jail resistance leaders in Poland at the war’s end as part of their takeover of the country.
By contrast, Germany is more wary of over-committing in confronting Putin – Merkel has led efforts to impose sanctions, but has rejected providing military aid to Ukraine. Bush on Thursday said he favored providing “defensive military support.”
“I learned both in Germany and Poland that there are shared values but there are different approaches and different views on these subjects,” Bush said when asked what he had gained from his travel so far. “Understanding, based on one’s own history, why they advocate their positions has been very useful to me.”
If elected in 2016, Bush wouldn’t be the first in his family to deal with Putin, whom Bush’s brother famously declared “very straightforward and trustworthy” after he got “a sense of his soul” in their first meeting in 2001.
Asked about those comments on Thursday, Jeb Bush suggested that he was dealing with a different Putin.
“I think Putin has changed, for sure,” he said. “He’s changed over time and he has been emboldened by the fact that we’re – whether it’s true or not, the perception is that we’ve pulled back.”