The process of evaluating presidential candidates always involves a lot of speculation and guesswork, because we can't know what conditions a president is going to confront a few years from now. On domestic policy, however, we can at least look at what the candidate says he wants to do, because candidates keep the vast majority of their campaign promises. Barack Obama said he would enact health care reform, and he did; George W. Bush said he'd cut income taxes, and he did. When it comes to foreign policy, though, it can be a lot tougher to discern. First, candidates tend to be a lot less specific about what they intend to do. And second, much of foreign policy involves reacting to developments no one can foresee.
So if you're trying to figure out what, say, Jeb Bush would do in foreign affairs, what do you have to go on? Well, you can ask a question like, "Would he be more like his father, or more like his brother?" Which will tell you very little. But Michael Crowley gives it a shot:
Jeb Bush's allies include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is a board member of an education foundation Bush chairs, and with whom he is personally close. And soon after leaving office in 2009, Cheney, who cares most about national security, told Fox News that he is "a big fan of Jeb's." Bush has also impressed one of the GOP's wealthiest donors, the hawkish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Conservative foreign policy insiders say that what's known about Bush's views places him in the dominant interventionist wing of his party, which is still shaped by his co-signatories on the 1997 Project for the New American Century document [which advocated overthrowing Saddam Hussein]. He has challenged the anti-interventionist views of Sen. Rand Paul and his supporters.
But those conservatives also note that while Jeb's brother, George W., is remembered for a controversially bold foreign policy, his father, former president George H.W. Bush, charted a more pragmatic approach. The elder Bush, for instance, did not act to remove Saddam from power after expelling him from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.
I love the expression "controversially bold." Reporters can't seem to figure out how to describe George W. Bush's catastrophic foreign policy record without using all kinds of positive, manly words, like "bold," "strong," "aggressive," or my favorite, "muscular."
Anyhow, the problem in trying to use the past as a guide is that the next president is going to confront a different set of challenges than what presidents did in the 1980s or 2000s. Jeb Bush wouldn't have to deal with the winding down of the Soviet empire, and while he might consider invading Iraq, doing so now would be a very different decision than it was in 2003.
In a fair world, Bush would be "burdened" by his brother's disastrous foreign policy no more than any other Republican who supported it. After all, Jeb didn't invade Iraq, any more than Chris Christie or Ted Cruz did. There's really no way to know if he still defends what was probably the single worst foreign policy decision in American history because he actually thinks it was a great idea, or because he's a Republican and therefore he doesn't have much of a choice.
So the task of predicting what kind of foreign policy president he'd be is an almost impossible one: first you have to try to discern some kind of underlying foreign policy doctrine based on a statement he signed in 1997 or a speech he gave a year ago, then you have to figure out how that doctrine might apply to events that haven't yet occurred.
If I had to ask one set of questions about a presidential candidate on foreign policy, it would be this: does he think that foreign policy challenges have easy solutions? Or does he appreciate that the world is a complex place and that our actions can have unintended consequences? Does he, like John McCain, give the same answer to every foreign policy question? George W. Bush's childish beliefs about the world always seemed to me to be the root of all his foreign policy mistakes. He thought that the world could be divided neatly into good guys and bad guys, that if we were righteous then anything we attempted would work out splendidly, that all that mattered was being strong and resolute. His father, on the other hand, certainly had an appreciation for the world's complexity, and while some of Barack Obama's foreign policy decisions may turn out to have been mistaken, on the whole his concern for unintended consequences and reluctance to make bad situations much worse has served him well.
For all we know, there may be vast differences in how the Republican candidates would actually handle foreign policy crises or opportunities. With the exception of Rand Paul, though, they're all likely to adopt a pose meant to contrast with Obama. They'll say America needs to act, and be bold and strong and muscular, whatever the actual challenge is. In other words, they're going to sound a lot like George W. Bush.