CHICAGO — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday said “there were mistakes made” in Iraq but praised his brother’s 2007 troop surge as “one of the most heroic acts of courage, politically, that any president’s done.” And he blamed the rise of the Islamic State and collapse of security in western Iraq on the Obama administration, which officially withdrew from the country in 2011.
The surge “created a stability that when the new president came in, he could have built on to create a fragile, but more stable situation, that would not have allowed for the void to be filled,” Bush said, referring to ISIS militants that now occupy part of western Iraq.
Bush named the mistakes as the flawed intelligence that pointed to weapons of mass destruction that were never found, and to the security vacuum created after Saddam Hussein was removed from power and his army was disbanded. His remarks came during a question-and-answer session after his foreign policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speech represented his first public grappling with the legacies of the two previous Presidents Bush since making clear he was likely to run for president himself.
“I love my father and my brother. I love my mother as well. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make,” Bush said. “But I am my own man.”
But in his speech, he didn’t criticize either his father or his brother of them, instead reserving his ire for President Barack Obama. And a list of foreign policy advisers that have signed on to advise Bush included 21 names — 20 of whom previously advised George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush or both. On the list is Paul Wolfowitz, who’s been labeled a key architect of the plan to oust Saddam Hussein.
“My views will often be held up in comparison to theirs — sometimes in contrast to theirs,” Bush said. “My views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.”
In his speech, Bush laid out broad principles for an American foreign policy that remains engaged with the world. But he didn’t tackle too many specifics; he didn’t, for instance, say whether he supports the proposed Authorization for Use of Military Force in Syria that’s pending in Congress or whether he would consider putting American combat troops on the ground to fight the Islamic State.
He did come out in favor of the National Security Agency program that sweeps up millions of phone records of everyday Americans. And he said he was looking forward to hearing a speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau, who’s scheduled to address Congress on March 3. House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without first asking the president, a break from protocol, and some Democrats are boycotting the speech.
“I don’t blame him for wanting to share his views and in fact, I think it will be important for the American people to get the perspective of our closest ally in the region,” Bush said.
Bush’s prepared were marks were relatively lengthy but were delivered in under half an hour, with the former governor seeming to read quickly through his lines. He appeared much more comfortable in the question-and-answer portion of the event, engaging with the moderator and with audience members who asked questions.
Bush has moved quickly and aggressively to raise millions of dollars and lock down his party’s top donors, even as as many as a dozen other Republicans are trying to compete with him for the GOP nomination. Bush has also started hiring a political team that would form the basis of a presidential campaign. And he’s risen in some polls in early presidential primary states.
But Bush has yet to face questions from voters whose most recent memory of a Bush presidency rooted in a deeply unpopular war in Iraq.
The Bush name has been burnished somewhat since George W. Bush left office in 2008. As Obama was inaugurated, about 61% of Americans held a negative view of his predecessor, according to Gallup. It’s been climbing since then — but it took until 2013 before the Gallup survey showed George W. Bush’s approval rating back above 50%.
Those ratings could help explain why his brother is facing an electorate that already holds negative views of him. An NBC News/Marist poll last month showed just 19% of Americans viewed Jeb Bush favorably — compared to 32% who view him in a negative light.
Aides argue that he’s only just starting to introduce himself to the American public as his own man, and that he’ll be able to differentiate himself as the cycle winds on.
Presidential politics in 2016, though, wasn’t on Wednesday’s agenda. During the question-and-answer, Bush was asked who might make up his potential cabinet.
“That’s a 15-yard penalty with loss of down,” he said.