DES MOINES — When Jeb Bush stepped up onto the fabled soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Friday, fairgoers pelted him with questions about the legacy of his brother, a former president. And his father, another former president. And one of his foreign policy advisers, Paul D. Wolfowitz, the architect of his brother’s war in Iraq. And about the war itself.
Under a blazing sun, Bush expressed irritation with what he called “the parlor game” of focusing on Wolfowitz and other past Bush administration advisers who have resurfaced for this Bush campaign.
“If I’m president, we will have a strategy on Day One to take out this grave threat to our national security and to the world,” he said. “I promise you that.”
This was supposed to be the week when Bush would finally lay out his own thoughts on how to combat the Islamic State terror group and put Hillary Rodham Clinton on the defensive — and wrest himself from his family legacy in the process. But over several days, it has become evident that his ideas on the subject are remarkably similar to George W. Bush’s ideas and that he firmly believes that Democrats — not his brother — deserve the blame for the unrest in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
His new struggles with the issue also come as he is fading in polls and being drowned out by the angry outsiders dominating the race.
According to Bush this week, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power “turned out to be a pretty good deal.” The 2007 troop surge was “an extraordinarily effective” strategy. By the time his brother left office, he said, the “mission was accomplished” in Iraq because security had been restored.
Bush also said he won’t rule out waterboarding in the interrogation of terrorism suspects, although he added, “I do think in general that torture is not appropriate.”
Bush faults President Obama for his unwillingness to talk directly about “radical Islamic terrorists” and Clinton for visiting Iraq only once as secretary of state. He said it might be necessary to deploy more U.S. forces to both Iraq and Syria — and that troops already on the ground should be embedded more closely with local forces.
As for questions about advisers, Bush told fairgoers Friday that he has a young team working at his campaign headquarters in Miami. Shrugging, Bush said any veteran GOP foreign policy advisers “had to deal with two Republican administrations” run by his brother and father.
“I mean, this is kind of a tough game to be playing, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m my own person.”
In an interview Friday, radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Bush whether it’s easier or harder for him to talk about national security given his last name. Bush shot back: “It doesn’t matter. I’m the first candidate to have a view on this with enough detail for people to see what the world would look like if I’m president.”
But Democrats are eager to exploit Bush’s remarks this week to remind voters of his family ties. During a town hall in Dubuque, Iowa, on Friday afternoon, Clinton took aim at Bush’s criticism of her, noting that his brother signed an agreement as president to withdraw combat troops from the country by 2011.
“I do think that it’s a little bit surprising to hear Jeb Bush talk about this,” she said. “He expects the American people to have a collective case of amnesia.”
Later in the town hall, Clinton sought to single out Jeb Bush’s comments on women’s issues but mistakenly referred to him as “George Bush.”
“I get confused,” she said, seeming to relish her error. “Oh, well.”
Most Americans still believe the Iraq war was a mistake and are opposed to new military engagement — making Jeb Bush’s approach to national security risky. But polling suggests that his positions are popular among most Republicans, especially if it means raising doubts about Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
“Jeb is going to talk about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and how to defeat it,” said Tim Miller, Bush’s campaign communications director. “If the Democrats want to talk about the past, that’s their prerogative, but the American people are looking for someone who will address today’s growing terror threat, and they didn’t get it from Obama/Clinton.”
Among his GOP rivals, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said that “it was a mistake to topple” Hussein, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says it “makes no sense for us to be re-litigating yesterday.”
Businessman Donald Trump has it both ways, blaming George W. Bush for invading the country in the first place and Obama for pulling troops out in 2011. “The war should have never happened,” he told Fox News earlier this year. “Once it did happen, you should have left the troops in. It’s really a double fault.”
In Iowa — where Bush polled seventh in a CNN-ORC poll released this week — there are some Republicans who appreciate his approach and think his dynastic lineage is a positive attribute.
“He’s going to be our man because he’s presidential; he knows what’s going on,” said Belinda Schlueter, a 56-year-old homemaker. “He comes from a family that actually knows what the country’s all about and how the office runs. We need somebody there that knows what they’re doing.”
Bush launched his discussions of national security Tuesday in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. He faulted Obama and Clinton for their “blind haste” to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, a “premature” decision and a “fatal error” that disrupted the fragile progress his brother helped forge in Iraq. He did not mention his brother’s role in starting the process for withdrawal.
While there are about 3,500 U.S. support troops in Iraq now, “more may well be needed,” Bush said. He endorsed deploying troops to work more closely with Iraqi forces, including as forward air spotters to help identify targets. “We do not need, and our friends do not ask for, a major commitment of American combat forces,” he said. “But we do need to convey that we are serious, that we are determined to help local forces take back their country.”
In Syria, he called for more active U.S. involvement in the brutal Syrian civil war — including a no-fly zone and the expansion of “safe zones” in the country.
On Thursday, at a national security forum in Davenport, Iowa, he said “Iraq was fragile but secure” when his brother left office in 2009. He added that the “mission was accomplished in the way that there was security there and it was because of the heroic efforts of the men and women in the United States military that it was so.”
That answer immediately prompted comparisons to George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of a Navy carrier that critics say prematurely declared the end of the Iraqi military campaign.
At the forum, Jeb Bush would not say for certain whether he would preserve the executive order Obama signed banning enhanced interrogation. Later Thursday, he told reporters that he would not rule out using waterboarding during interrogations of terrorism suspects.
Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), whose group hosted the forum, credited Bush with presenting “the most nuanced approach to a really hard problem.”
Rogers, who is neutral in the GOP primary contests, said, “Campaigns now are [so] tapped in to 140 characters and Twitter, it’s very difficult to have a thoughtful conversation about national security.”
Peter Feaver, who advised George W. Bush on Iraq, applauded Bush for delivering “a detailed speech” and suggested he represented views “advocated by serious Democrats and Republicans.”
He pointed to a recent Washington Post op-ed co-written by Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy who has been touted as a possible defense secretary for Clinton. Writing with Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Flournoy advocated a series of proposals similar to what Bush called for: to provide more military aid to Sunni tribes and the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq; to embed more Special Operations forces with Iraqi security forces; to deploy forward air controllers to identify targets; and to build a stronger global campaign against the Islamic State.
After parrying questions lobbed at him by Iowans, Bush donned a red apron and flipped pork chops with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). Carl Owens, a hog farmer, stood off to the side taking in the scene.
“I don’t know if he’s like his brother and dad or not,” said Owens, 59. “I wasn’t too happy with them. Mr. Bush, the last president, look at the mess he got the United States into over there where we shouldn’t have been. Kind of like the Vietnam War. We shouldn’t have been there.”
O’Keefe reported from Washington. Sean Sullivan in Iowa contributed to this report.