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Jeb Bush’s foreign policy speech yesterday aimed at the exact center of the Republican Party, and it was sure to please. I was cheered by his rejection of both Obama’s disastrous withdrawal from U.S. leadership in the world and Rand Paul’s misguided libertarianism. Over the next few months, he will have to show that he has the chops not only to brush aside neo-isolationists, but also to take on Hillary Clinton and a more left-wing opponent.
Perhaps the most heartening takeaway from the speech was his rejection of misguided libertarianism in national security. In a part of the speech that received less attention than others, Bush described the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program as “hugely important.” He said, “For the life of me, I don’t understand the debate” over the program, despite the cries of civil libertarians that the NSA is violating individual privacy rights. Paul, for his part, is suing the NSA to stop the program (an odd approach for someone who sits in the Senate and has available the political process to oppose the program).
Bush’s position on the NSA is reasonable, sensible, and in line with the views of a majority of Americans and, one expects, most Republican primary voters. It suggests that he would take similarly reasonable views in keeping Guantanamo Bay and military tribunals open, using the combination of drones and surveillance to pursue al Qaeda leaders, and redoubling measures to pursue al Qaeda. Bush also probably represented the views of a majority of Republicans in criticizing the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from world leadership, its failures in the Middle East, and its shrinking response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. “The great irony of the Obama presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential,” he said. Bush’s call for a reinvigorated American role in world affairs will be popular among Republicans and will hopefully help send Paul and other neo-isolationsts to the margins.
But Bush’s speech also aimed at the low-hanging fruit. He should take the important next step of offering a vision of U.S. foreign policy that will go beyond just reaction to current hot spots. Obama’s foreign policy, and that of Hillary Clinton, suffers not just from its shrinking response to the challenges of world leadership, but its failure to develop and follow a strategy toward world events. President Obama has become a ping-pong ball bouncing from one crisis to the next, trying out policies on the fly, without any broader understanding of central U.S. interests. American foreign policy has ceded the initiative to others because of the White House’s lack of strategic vision.
So what would make sense of Bush’s positions on the wide variety of foreign policy challenges facing the nation? He could begin by returning to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy. In order of importance, these have been: 1) defense of the nation’s territory; 2) hegemony in the Western Hemisphere; 3) preventing any single power from controlling Europe or Asia; 4) securing free navigation of the seas and airspace above it; 5) maintaining a liberal world order for our us and our allies that allows free trade and democracy to flourish.
Re-doubling the pursuit of al Qaeda and ISIS — including the NSA programs, drones, Guantanamo Bay, and support for our Middle East allies fighting in Syria and Iraq now — is fundamental because it advances the defense of our homeland. Bush can restore American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere by reversing Obama’s opening to Cuba and pressuring Venezuela to overturn its hostile regime. He can focus our response to Russia’s revanchism and China’s rise in the most effective way by building blocking alliances to balance against their moves toward regional dominance. We must restore spending on the navy, air force, and army because of the importance of maintaining open and free seas and air (secured by American bases and forces in maritime nations), and because free trade helps the American economy and supports friendly democratic regimes. This means renewed spending on defense and, as Bush recognized, reinvigorating economic growth at home to support it.
So let’s give Jeb Bush a B+ for his speech — no grade inflation out here in Berkeley — and consider it a down payment on a deeper vision of U.S. foreign policy.