WASHINGTON — As Jeb Bush lays the groundwork for a presidential run, he is frequently compared with his father and his brother, presidents 41 and 43.
If Jeb Bush does run to be 45, he says he is prepared to be the third Bush to employ American military power in Iraq. On an issue that has received limited attention from other likely candidates in the buildup to 2016, Bush has said he would “reengage with some small force level” to train forces and help stabilize the country his father and brother both invaded.
Iraq is a topic that poses political challenges for candidates in both parties, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose 2002 vote to authorize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq bedeviled her 2008 presidential campaign. But it is difficult to imagine any candidate having as complicated a task as Jeb Bush, who is seeking to define himself as his “own man,” in his words, but whose policies and advisers on Iraq significantly overlap with his brother’s.
Most Republicans in the emerging field of GOP primary candidates have taken a hawkish position, advocating for an influx of up to 10,000 troops in Iraq and criticizing President Obama for what they consider a premature exit from Iraq and timidity in the face of the Islamic State.
Hanging over everything Bush says on Iraq is the 1991 liberation of Kuwait and invasion of Iraq that was launched by his father, George H. W. Bush, and the war led more than a decade later by George W. Bush. That war became deeply unpopular and cost 4,500 Americans their lives.
But Jeb Bush has said that he will not be haunted by ghosts of his family’s past, and that he will do what he views as necessary to keep America safe — comparisons be damned.
“I wouldn’t be conflicted by any legacy issues of my family,” Bush told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last month. “I actually . . . am quite comfortable being George Bush’s son and George Bush’s brother.”
Jeb Bush has yet to fully articulate his views on Iraq, or how he thinks the United States should combat the rise of the Islamic State, which has taken over portions of Iraq and Syria. His campaign aides would not say what he means by “a small force level” and whether he views that as going beyond the special forces that President Obama has ordered in the country.
But he has said that if Obama had kept 10,000 troops in Iraq, it would have prevented the rise of the Islamic State.
“The surge worked. We created a fragile degree of stability. The forces agreement the president could have signed, I think, would have avoided where we are today,” Jeb Bush said in Hudson, N.H., recently, referring to a troop level increase that his brother had authorized as president. “But we are where we are.”
He said the United States should “reengage with some small force level who can help continue to train the Iraqi army, to be able to provide some stability.”
He also said he envisions carving out a combat staging area in Syria to support international military operations against the Islamic State, with the support of US air power.
Several foreign policy experts view the situation as more complicated than just stopping the Islamic State. With Iranian-backed militias now fighting for influence in Iraq, the politics in the country have grown more unpredictable.
“Our debate seems to be six months out of date rather than about the current situation,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, who under President George W. Bush served as US ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007. “It is now much more complicated, and the environment much more difficult to operate in, making it difficult to contemplate how even a small force could shift the conditions quickly and decisively.”
Of more than a dozen candidates currently considering a run for president, only two have served in the military: former Virginia senator Jim Webb, who has considered running in the Democratic primary, was in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam; former Texas governor Rick Perry flew C-130s in the Air Force.
But even while politicians themselves have less military experience, there is a continued turn in the public dialogue toward American military might.
“Mainstream politicians reflexively frame the challenges of the greater Middle East as challenges that require a US military response . . . and there’s very little appetite in either party to take on that question of what do we do if military power is not the answer,” said Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and retired Army colonel who is writing a military history of America’s war for the greater Middle East.
“It’d be great to have a candidate who would say: ‘Guess what? Our military efforts in the greater Middle East have failed in the last 30 years. We really need to think again about policy objectives and what we should do there,’ ” he added. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
During her expected run for president, Clinton will tout herself as the most qualified candidate on foreign affairs, given her experience as secretary of state. In addition to her handling of the 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, she will face intense questions about what she would do in Iraq and the region now. So far, in the buildup to her expected campaign, she has said little on Iraq.
Her spokesman, Nick Merrill, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Clinton has long struggled with her own stances on Iraq. She voted to authorize the war in 2003, only to say later the vote was a mistake. She opposed the surge in 2007.
Like Bush, several other Republicans have been pushing for more aggressive use of military force to help combat Islamic State militants and stabilize Iraq. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas have both said they could support ground troops, while Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has pushed for around 10,000 ground troops.
Jeb Bush’s remarks in New Hampshire came in response to a question comparing him to his brother and father: “Your father had Iraq, your brother had 9/11. You may have ISIS. How will you respond?
“This president, sadly I think, has pulled back because he thinks that our engagement in the world has created far more difficulties than any benefits,” Bush said. “And that’s wrong. And it’s created voids that are now filled. And great doubts about whether the US is serious about engaging in the region.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.