As promised, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush delivered remarks in Berlin yesterday, and the former governor did exactly what he intended to do: he shook hands with Chancellor Angela Merkel, he avoided any obvious mistakes, and he lambasted Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But in his remarks, Bush also chided President Obama’s foreign policy in a way that’s worth considering in more detail:
“Ukraine, a sovereign European nation, must be permitted to choose its own path. Russia must respect the sovereignty of all of its neighbors. And who can doubt that Russia will do what it pleases if aggression goes unanswered?”
This is a standard argument in Republican circles. Putin’s aggression went “unanswered,” which only emboldened him and other bad actors around the world. It’s up to the White House to step up in situations like these, and Obama didn’t.
The problem, of course, is that the exact opposite is true. Obama didn’t allow Putin’s aggression to go unanswered; Obama acted quite quickly to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia, which have taken a real toll. Indeed, it was the U.S. president who rallied international allies to isolate Putin diplomatically and economically.
Bush may believe these actions weren’t enough, and he would have preferred to see more. Fine. But he then has a responsibility to tell U.S. voters now, before the election, what kind of additional steps he has in mind when confronting a rival like Russia. If economic and diplomatic pressure are insufficient, is Bush on board with a military confrontation?
(Incidentally, if Bush is looking for actual examples of the United States allowing Russian aggression to go unanswered, he might look at his brother’s inaction after conflict erupted between Russia and Georgia in 2008. He could also look at Reagan’s reaction to Russia killing 269 people, including an American congressman, by shooting down a civilian airliner.)
That’s what ultimately made Jeb Bush’s saber-rattling yesterday so underwhelming: it was largely hollow.
At one point yesterday, Jeb said U.S. training exercises in the region wasn’t “mean” enough. Really? What would a “mean” Bush foreign policy look like, exactly?
He added, “To deal with Putin, you need to deal from strength. He’s a bully, and bullies don’t – you enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that. I think just being clear – I’m not talking about being bellicose, but just saying, ‘These are the consequences of your actions.’”
So Bush envisions a “mean” policy lacking in “nuance” that delivers “consequences.” But he hasn’t explained in detail what such a policy might look like.
The Florida Republican’s first foray into foreign policy was in February, and at the time, it went quite poorly. Four months later, it seems the learning curve for Bush remains steep.