On His European Tour, Jeb Bush Shakes Fist at Putin

Bush speaks in Warsaw Thursday. Bush speaks in Warsaw Thursday. Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Jeb Bush is traveling to Germany, Poland, and Estonia this week, hoping to burnish his minimal national-security credentials before he makes his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination official on Monday in Miami. An itinerary spotted with speaking engagements sets Bush’s overseas tour apart from prior sojourns by his GOP rivals, but so far it has yielded mixed returns.

Addressing a large crowd at an annual economic conference organized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Bush called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a ruthless pragmatist who will push until someone pushes back” and urged allies to “isolate his corrupt leadership from his people.”

“Who can doubt that Russia will do what it pleases if its aggression goes unanswered?” Bush said in the Tuesday speech.

On Wednesday he took an unannounced trip to Auschwitz, and on Thursday, he'll meet in Warsaw, Poland, with the current president and president elect. On Friday he’ll participate in a security discussion in Tallinn, Estonia.

Though Bush hasn’t run for office since he won reelection as Florida governor in 2002, his aides emphasize that he’s made 89 trips to 22 countries since leaving office. In contrast, rival contenders such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (neither of whom, like Bush, have officially announced) have declined to make many comments during recent trips abroad.

In London in February, reporters were told Christie would not talk policy with them. Christie responded a reporter’s question about the Islamic State by snapping, “Is there something you didn’t understand about ‘no questions?’” Since then, he’s looked increasingly comfortable on the campaign trail back home talking about aggressively going after terrorists. Walker largely avoided any comments at all on his requisite trip to London and Israel but has spoken more on the subject of late after putting some distance between a gaffe in February comparing Islamic State terrorists to protesters for organized labor.

Bush on the other hand has used his stops this week to take an aggressive stance against Putin, dropping the “I’m my own man” pretense of his first foreign policy remarks, designed at the time to distance himself from his hawkish brother, former President George W. Bush.

The stakes are high as Bush looks to stem a loss of steam just days out from his official announcement that he’s entering the race, after shakeups at the top of his campaign staff, reports that he’ll miss his much-touted $100 million fundraising benchmark by the end of this month, and a recent surge in polls by former protégé Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. buoyed by national security performances.

“Governor Bush headed to Europe to discuss with our allies the importance of rebuilding frayed alliances to ensure we are prepared to meet the shared threats we face – from confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression to policies that will help our economies grow and create high paying jobs,” Tim Miller, who will soon move from the “Right to Rise” super PAC to the campaign, told Defense One.

“Governor Bush [is] the type of person not to shirk from issues,” Miller added when asked about other candidates’ decisions to stay quiet abroad. “He's heading to Europe both to listen but also to express the importance of rebuilding the relationships with our allies.”

The statement serves to imply there are frayed alliances under Obama that need fixing. It’s an easy play after Bush was widely viewed to have struck out on a softball question about the Iraq War, saying he would’ve authorized the 2003 invasion and digging himself deeper in attempts to walk it back. Germany, Poland and Estonia, three NATO allies, have tight security relationships with the U.S. and are uneasy about Russian aggression. President George W. Bush enjoyed relative popularity there compared to the outright animosity he received from Western Europe over the Iraq War. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine provides ready fodder for Bush to hit Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for naiveté on their Russian “reset,” which Bush said “didn’t turn out so hot.” Former GOP nominee and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- who amid the annexation of Crimea enjoyed something of a perceived vindication for his debate pronouncement that Russia is “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” — also chose to visit Poland in 2012 (after flubbing the vanilla stops of Britain and Israel).

Russia and Putin now reflect the reality of actual foreign policy decisions that confront presidents versus the campaign trail myths and cheap shots that candidates like to play off each other. And Bush’s comments underscored the distance between that reality and the long-on-heat, short-on-details national security rhetoric of the jostling GOP field. 

It was Jeb’s brother, George W., who as president believed he had found a “very straightforward and trustworthy” partner in Putin, famously saying after his first meeting with him in 2001 and looking into his eyes, he had gotten “a sense of his soul.” After that relationship degraded steadily throughout Bush’s administration, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the one who quipped as the 2008 nominee: “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three things: a ‘K’ and a ‘G’ and a ‘B.’”

In summer 2008, months before the election, some 200,000 showed up for Obama’s speech at the Victory Column in Tiergarten, roaring as the would-be president emphasized partnership after a tense period under George W. in which America grew isolated from allies. Even Jeb tinged his implicit criticism of Obama’s “withdrawal” with a touch of the president’s own multilateralism, “We cannot pull back … the U.S. has to lead, and we have to do it in partnership with our allies.” And for all the criticism of the president’s misjudgment of Putin, even Vice President Joe Biden had a more realpolitik take after a 2011 visit to Moscow, telling the Russian president, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” To which Putin responded, according to Biden: “We understand one another."

Germany, who Bush suggested has been forced to shoulder too much of the burden of the economic sanctions that have served as the primary tool for responding to Russian aggression in the absence of American leadership, has been reluctant to go any further, with both Merkel and Obama resisting the push toward military action. The Obama administration has sent troops to Eastern Europe on a rotational basis to conduct exercises and train and reassure NATO allies, as Bush and others have called for, though Bush said Wednesday NATO should consider permanently stationing troops in Poland and Eastern Europe, a proposal members have previously rejected. And despite some tension over revelations that the National Security Agency had monitored Merkel’s communications, Obama just yesterday wrapped up the Group of Seven meeting in Bavaria where he and Merkel reiterated close ties on a host of national security issues from Ukraine to the Iranian nuclear agreement to the Islamic State fight.

Bush, who has entered the race in every way but officially, reminded reporters somewhat exasperatedly Wednesday, “It’s June, for crying out loud, so we’ve got a long way to go." But he suggested it already was too late for another reset with Russia. “You enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that,” Bush said of Putin. As for why several presidents -- including Bush’s brother -- have underestimated Putin, he said, “He just invaded another country. That was different than it was a decade ago.”

“This is a different Putin, much more aggressive,” he said.

But would Jeb Bush be a different president?

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