Grasping.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After Paris, Jeb Whiffs on His War Speech

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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On Wednesday, Jeb Bush missed his chance. After the Paris attacks, many in his party have gone nativist, attacking President Barack Obama's modest plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Obama has gone adolescent, trolling Republicans instead of articulating a coherent strategy to defeat the perpetrators of the Paris atrocity.  

This was Bush's opportunity to let the country see his calm and steady side, and make a virtue out of the low-energy caricature that Donald Trump tagged on him this summer. Instead, he offered euphemism that didn't sound much different than his last major defense policy speech, in August at the Reagan Library.

The most disappointing part of the speech is that it contained too many hedges. Bush called for ground troops to be sent to fight against the Islamic State. But there was a caveat: It should be in conjunction with our allies, and its scope "should be in line with what our military generals recommend will be necessary to achieve our objective."

How is this substantively any different than what Obama is already doing? The U.S. has sent about 3,500 special operations forces to Iraq and Syria. They are training Iraqis, and sometimes fighting, alongside soldiers from NATO and others in the region. And the president insists his generals believe these numbers are sufficient.

This is not to say Bush didn't distinguish himself from Obama on other matters. He called for more robust defense spending than the president. Then again, so does every Republican candidate, with the exception of Rand Paul. He also called for a no-fly zone in Syria, an option that has been overtaken by the event of Russia's entry into the war in September.

On refugees, Bush told CNN on Sunday that we should focus on making it a priority to allow Syrian Christians -- who are often targeted for their religion by the Islamic State -- into the country first. He told Bloomberg Politics on Tuesday that America should stick by its noble tradition of welcoming refugees, and yet his campaign that same day seemed to endorse a plan to pause the process for allowing those refugees in the country, in deference to worries from governors about the vetting process. It got so bad that a Fox News anchor on Wednesday morning asked him three times if he had changed his position. 

The one clear area where Bush drew the distinction between himself and Obama was on what to label the enemy. Obama, and most Democrats, have been loathe to say "radical Islam," when asked about who keeps attacking us in the West. Bush pounced on this linguistic difference: "Here is the truth you will not hear from our president. We are at war with radical Islamic terrorism." (As opposed to moderate Islamic terrorism?)

As I have written, Jeb's brother, President George W. Bush also didn't say "radical Islam."  He had a good reason. The war against radical Islamic terrorists requires the support of many radical Muslims who are not terrorists. Large pluralities of Muslims believe that Islam should be the law of the land, for example, but don't approve of suicide bombers. The strategy since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been to cleave away from the broad pool of radical Islamists the most hardened terrorists who are willing to shed blood for the ideology.

Perhaps Jeb Bush could have explained how this approach -- favored by his brother and Obama -- has failed. He could have said that he was aware of the old strategy, but that America also has an obligation to engage in the war of ideas too within Islam. He could have been specific about how many ground troops are needed for his new war. He could have demanded that Congress reauthorize the long war against radical Islamic terrorists, just as they did after the 9/11 attacks. He could have clarified his position on Syrian refugees. Instead he missed his chance. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net