Last week’s terrorist attack in the heart of Paris has not only rightly refocused the world’s attention on the dangers that the Islamic State represents--it has also upended the presidential politics here in the United States. If immigration reform and the economy were the top two subjects that dominated the first two nationally televised debates, the November 13 attack in Paris have shifted the deck as to the issues voters care about.
For Jeb Bush, who continues to meander in the single digits in the polls (the latest survey from Florida Atlantic University has Bush at 9% in his home state, compared to Donald Trump’s 36%), the violence in Paris that claimed the lives of 129 people at six separate locations exemplifies an argument that he has been trying to make since he declared his candidacy: do Americans really want someone as inexperienced as Ben Carson or as hot-tempered as Donald Trump sitting in the big chair making critical national security decisions for the country? Bush’s campaign clearly believes that Paris shows the best opportunity for Bush to demonstrate his skills as a sober minded and serious executive.
Bush tried to do that on November 18, when he was invited to South Carolina’s Citadel to speak to cadets about the ever-changing geopolitical landscape and how the United States should respond. The speech was billed by the Bush campaign as a major foreign policy and national security address by a candidate who takes these issues seriously. While that may be the case, Jeb’s address at the Citadel left many questions unanswered; indeed, like national security speeches given by Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, and Gov. John Kasich, Bush’s remarks were based almost entirely on aspirations rather than reality. Bush has a long list of plans, but the fact of the manner is that many of them are either impossible to accomplish in Washington’s current political environment or, in the case of the fight against the Islamic State, difficult logistically to pull off. He has stated,
“Militarily, we need to intensify our efforts [against ISIL] in the air – and on the ground. While air power is essential, it alone cannot bring the results we seek. The United States – in conjunction with our NATO allies and more Arab partners – will need to increase our presence on the ground.”
How Jeb Bush would convince NATO and Arab partners to contribute more resources, money, and manpower towards the fight against ISIL is left out of the equation. For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, launching airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria is far less of a priority than launching airstrikes against Houthi militants in Yemen and re-installing Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi to power. How Bush intends to persuade these countries to think differently about their own national interests was left unsaid. Bush has also asserted,
“In the span of a decade, our government will have withheld a trillion dollars from our national defense. There is no security rationale for these cuts, or any kind of strategic vision. They are completely arbitrary – imposed by a process that everyone in Washington claims to dislike, but no one in Washington has the courage to stop.”
Sequestration, the automatic budget caps that are designed to control government spending, is a law that many Republicans and Democrats absolutely despise. The Budget Control Act, passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2011, sets deficit control and spending restraint on discretionary accounts as the law of the land. Jeb Bush is right that the defense cuts are arbitrary, yet he doesn’t appear to understand just how difficult overturning sequestration would be — even if he were President. The failure of Republicans and Democrats to override the BCA is not one of “courage” but rather one of competing priorities: budget hawks against defense hawks, Republicans against Republicans, and Republicans against Democrats. This dynamic will continue well into the next administration whether Jeb Bush likes it or not. When it comes to Asia, Bush says,
“China, to take the most obvious example, has for years been spending heavily on warships, submarines, long-range attack aircraft, missile systems, and other capabilities that threaten America’s strategic position in the Pacific. And whatever China’s designs are in all this, we can safely assume it’s not in our interest to draw down as they build up.”
China’s reclamation and island building in the South China Sea is indeed one of the most disturbing challenges to the free flow of movement and commerce. Trillions of dollars every year transactions pass through the South China Sea, activity that could very well be at risk if Beijing’s push to own the waters is not resisted by the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies. But Bush’s claim about the Chinese catching up with the U.S. military in terms of capability is more alarmism than cool-headed analysis. Although China spends more on defense acquisition and development as a percentage of its budget, Beijing is still far behind the United States in actual dollars. In FY14, the U.S. spent approximately $609 billion on defense compared to China’s $216 billion. Or, to put it another way the difference between the U.S. and China in military spending ($393 billion) is still greater than what China spent last year.
If Bush wants to come across as prepared to be Commander in Chief, he needs to recognize that sloganeering can’t replace serious policy analysis when it comes to executing foreign policy. Will he?