Asked his opinion on the Iraq War recently, Jeb Bush struggled to find his footing while supporting his brother. But ask about Russian President Vladimir Putin – of whom former President George W. Bush once said that he “got a sense of his soul” – and older brother Jeb gets right to the point: “He’s a bully.”
How does he square that difference? Jeb Bush said Thursday that Putin has evolved over the years.
“I think Putin has changed, for sure. He has changed over time and he has been emboldened by, whether it’s true or not, the perception is that we’ve pulled back,” Bush said. “So people do change and this is an example of that.”
Indeed, George Bush’s own relationship with the Russian leader deteriorated over his term, to a point where he and just about every other Republican agree Putin is a threat that needs to be contained.
Jeb Bush has not said exactly how he would handle Putin if elected president, but he did say Thursday that the U.S. needs to step up its military presence in Eastern Europe to support allies like Poland.
“We need to be more robust, we need to encourage our NATO allies in Europe to invest more in their own national security. We need to do the same In our country. We need to be consistent about what types of actions we will take should there be more aggression,” he said.
On the crisis in Ukraine, where leaders are begging for more assistance from the West, Bush said they should be provided with more military help.
“We need to provide defensive military support. It’s hard to make the structural reforms and grow the economy in a world where there is aggression,” Bush said.
The theme of Bush’s trip this week to Germany, Poland and Estonia – ahead of his expected announcement Monday that he’s running for president – is to highlight what he calls the importance of a “forward leaning” American approach here, one he argues is lacking under the Obama administration.
But just how Bush would take the forward leaning concept, and turn it into policy as president, is a work in progress.
He would not say, for example, whether former Soviet countries like Ukraine should be accepted into NATO, instead saying he would defer to the process that allows that.
Still, he sees plenty of room to attack the current president and implicitly criticize leading 2016 Democratic contender Hillary Clinton for an unsuccessful “reset” with Russia.
“I think to deal with Putin, you need to deal from strength. He’s a bully,” Bush said in Berlin Wednesday, repeating a message he’s using throughout his Europe trip this week. “You enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that.”
He continued, “I’m not talking about being bellicose, but saying, ‘Here are the consequences of your actions.’ And that would deter the kind of bad outcome that we don’t want to see.”
And at the close of separate remarks in Berlin Tuesday, Bush took a final shot at Clinton and Obama.
“I think there’s lots to do, and we’re beginning to realize the ‘reset button’ didn’t turn out so hot,” he said.
Putin is a perfect whipping boy for Republicans as his support for separatists’ hostile takeover of Ukraine combined with his condescending rhetoric toward the United States have revived Cold War rivalries between the two countries.
Since then, Western powers have pushed to isolate Putin. At the same time Bush was in Germany, Obama was in the country for a meeting of the G7, which kicked out Russia roughly a year ago. High on the agenda was whether economic sanctions against Russia were working.
Back home, the politics are easy for Republicans. Democrats have set the policy for the last seven years and one of the chief architects also happens to be the likely Democratic presidential nominee: Hillary Clinton.
“It makes sense that the Republican candidates are out to critique, and Hillary Clinton tries not to say much,” said Leon Aron, U.S.-Russia relations expert at the American Enterprise Institute, who consulted with 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney but has not signed onto any 2016 campaign yet.
Aron noted that he has been contacted by several prospective Republican presidential campaigns and said the fact that candidates have been reaching out to him so early in the election cycle is a clear sign of the importance foreign policy – and specifically U.S.-Russian relations – will play in this race.
The interest so early in Russia, he said, is part of a broader trend which has American voters focused abroad this cycle, including deep worries about Middle East unrest.
But for all the clear advantages of using Putin as a punching bag, that role also has a liability when it comes to the Bushes.
In his book “Decision Points,” George Bush recounted a meeting with Putin in 2001. At one point he asked if it was true that Putin’s mother had given him a cross blessed in Jerusalem. Putin then softened somewhat as he told the story of how he lost the cross in a fire.
“I thought of the emotion in Vladimir’s voice when he shared the story of the cross. ‘I looked the man in the eye,’ I said, ’… I was able to get a sense of his soul,’” Bush wrote. Bush also assessed then that Putin was “straightforward” and “trustworthy.”
Even fellow Republicans have criticized the president’s comments. As the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain said, “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things — a K and a G and a B.” The 2012 Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, also warned that Putin posed a much more serious threat than was perceived by the Obama administration.
Yet by the time George Bush left the White House, he, too, had soured on Putin. In the final year of his term, Bush struggled to decide how to handle Russia’s stunning invasion of Georgia. In his book, published two years after he left office, Bush called the invasion a “low point” in his relationship with Putin. He also noted that in the years following his 2001 meeting with the Russian president, “Putin would give me reasons to revise my opinion.”
That makes it easier for his brother Jeb to take on the Russian leader during his trip to parts of the former Soviet Union this week.
And it also helped that George Bush’s role in bolstering Eastern European countries is well-regarded in those states, making the Bushes sympatico on their over-arching foreign policy stance toward Russia.
Though Jeb Bush’s last name can be a negative when he travels abroad, given how disliked George Bush became in most of Europe, his campaign stops on this trip emphasize areas where there is public support for either his brother or his father.
Former President George H. W. Bush helped reunify Germany with the fall of the Soviet Union – a fact son Jeb pointed out to applause during his speech in Berlin.
And George W. Bush stood fast with former Soviet states, proposing a missile defense shield in Poland as a means of deterring Iran, which Obama later scrapped.
Candidates often spend more time criticizing policies and decrying international villains than spelling out their own course of action. And while Jeb Bush has used tough rhetoric, his actions may prove different. Aron said the usual approach is for U.S. presidents to open their terms with a general policy of détente with Russian leaders before relations deteriorate.
He pointed to President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as the model and Reagan’s encounters with the Soviets early in his first term while they were fighting in Afghanistan as the exception. George W. Bush’s ability to see Putin’s soul? That fit into the pattern, too.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that based on what Jeb Bush had said so far, Russians watching America would conclude that “Jeb has said the minimum that is now required in the West” so “he is generally sober.”
That means he would potentially be welcomed as an alternative to the current man in the Oval Office. “‘The U.S. will not turn into a friend if he is elected, but at least we will have a change of partner,’” Trenin said they would assess. “‘We are so tired of Obama.’”
CNN’s Dana Bash reported from Warsaw and Tom LoBianco reported from Washington.