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Jeb Bush to lay out foreign policy: Will he be dad, brother – or himself? (+video)

In a speech in Chicago Wednesday, Jeb Bush will offer his views on foreign policy. As a former governor of Florida, he has a clear record on domestic policies, but his views on foreign policy are less known. 

When Jeb Bush steps to a Chicago podium Wednesday morning to deliver a speech on his foreign policy views, the question on many minds will be which other Bush the not-quite-yet-declared presidential candidate sounds more like.

Will Jeb Bush offer a hawkish, America’s-way-or-the-highway vision of foreign policy, suggesting he’d follow in his brother George W. Bush’s interventionist, neoconservative footsteps? Or will he offer hints – through references, for example, to America’s leadership of broad coalitions to address global challenges – of a more cautious and internationalist approach, reminiscent of his father, George H.W. Bush?

Or then again, will he meld the two visions, which do, after all, represent the two most prominent camps of Republican foreign policy thinking? Or will he somehow manage to sound like neither the father nor the brother?

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Such questions almost never arise when it comes to Mr. Bush’s domestic policy vision, since the former Florida governor has a record and established, public views on issues ranging from education and fiscal policy to immigration.

Indeed, when Bush speaks of a "right to rise" and share in America’s economic opportunities, no one asks whether that sounds more like the father’s or the brother’s domestic economic approach. But on foreign policy, he is much more of a clean slate – and so the question of which former Bush president he would more likely emulate can’t help but come up.

"Every candidate has to pass the commander-in-chief threshold test, and every candidate faces certain mine fields in passing that test," says Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "The particular mine field for Jeb Bush is the advantage and the burden of his family name."

For starters, Bush will have to watch not to "overreact to the media pressure, particularly on foreign policy, to answer the question, 'Are you your brother or are you your dad?’ " Professor Feaver says.    

Furthermore, the memory of pitched foreign policy battles in the George W. Bush White House between father Bush’s pragmatic, internationalist wing (think then-Secretary of State Colin Powell) and the muscular neoconservatives behind the Iraq War (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, then vice president and secretary of Defense) is sure to be on the minds of the foreign policy experts who will parse every word that Jeb Bush utters Wednesday. His talk is at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

One hint of Bush’s preferred foreign policy course comes from the former officials he admires and those he is consulting with as he explores a run. Bush is said to particularly value the contributions of former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft – two pillars of the first President Bush’s pragmatic and internationalist foreign policy approach. (Neither Bush I icon was particularly welcome at the Bush II White House.)

Word has leaked out that Bush is consulting with former Deputy Secretary of State and former World Bank president Robert Zoellick (the mild-mannered Mr. Zoellick left the George W. Bush administration in 2006 after failing to rise to No. 1 at either State or Treasury) and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bush is also said to be considering making Meghan O’Sullivan, who served in George W. Bush's National Security Council advising on Iraq, as his campaign’s chief foreign policy adviser. Ms. O’Sullivan, who now teaches the practice of international affairs at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, is closely associated with the Iraq War – which might be considered a negative, given the war’s low marks among the American public.

But O’Sullivan is also credited with the “surge” strategy of 2007 that is viewed as having stabilized Iraq, and in some books she gets a star for weathering the demands of then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that she be removed from the post she held in post-invasion Iraq.

Yet while some foreign policy experts see a preference for the father’s foreign policy in the people Jeb Bush is consulting with, others see a tendency toward the brother’s vision in the few speeches he has made on foreign affairs. In a December speech in Miami to a Cuba pro-democracy group, Bush said that instead of lifting the embargo on Cuba, “I would argue that we should strengthen it to put pressure on the Cuban regime.”

He also faulted President Obama’s “indecisiveness” on Syria and other issues for bringing on more instability and increasing threats to the United States.

Any association with George W. Bush’s Iraq War might seem to spell political doom, since large majorities of Americans continue to say that the heavy sacrifices and costs of the war were "not worth it." But on the other hand, what may be riding to Jeb Bush’s rescue is the recent shift in US public opinion on foreign policy – increasingly away from a "mind our own business" approach that had been gaining ground in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to a growing preference for more American intervention.

"Public opinion has turned around significantly over the last 14 months to favoring a much more robust US role in the world," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. "I would assume that Jeb Bush would choose to tap into that as he lays out his foreign policy."

Duke University’s Feaver, who served in a national security capacity in George W. Bush’s White House, says Jeb Bush will have to answer the "Iraq War question" at some point – and that he’ll have to do a better job than simply saying, "I’ll talk about the future.... It’s not about re-litigating anything in the past" – as he did in response to a question last week.

"He needs a better answer than that on Iraq," Feaver says. "He needs to explain how he would have done things differently – and better."

But he doesn’t expect that to be part of what Bush says in Chicago.

"The first big speech is about identifying the big questions around foreign policy today, laying out who we are and what’s our role in the world, what are the big challenges we face, and how we can do a better job over the next four years," he says. "I wouldn’t expect him to spend a lot of time on how he’s different from his father or his brother."

 
 
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