Jeb Bush heads to Europe next week to put a checkmark in a final box before making his campaign for president official: an overseas visit to catch up with a few of America’s friends.
All of his hosts, Germany, Poland and Estonia are stalwart U.S. allies, and they’re calmer destinations than the cauldron of the Middle East. But the last name Bush still stirs anger in parts of Europe — a legacy of former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
For this Bush, the trick with his first trip overseas as a White House hopeful is to avoid spending too much time making the same case to European leaders he’s had to make at home to American voters — that he’s not his brother.
“If he tries to make this trip about see-how-I’m-not-like-George W. Bush, if that’s the story line of the trip, it will not have been a success,” said Peter Feaver, former head of strategic operations at the National Security Agency and now a professor at Duke University.
The trip comes at a key time for Bush. He will return a day before kicking off his campaign with an event in Miami, fresh from a journey he hopes will show he’s ready to step onto the world stage.
“A Republican doing a listening tour of American allies, that makes sense,” said William Inboden, who served as senior director for strategic planning with the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “But you’re also wanting to demonstrate the ability to be proficient in personal diplomacy.”
Bush’s six-day trip begins with a speech in Berlin on Tuesday to the economic council of the Christian Democratic Union, the conservative party led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A mix of public and private events there and in Poland and Estonia follow.
The early days of the GOP campaign suggest much of the party’s presidential primary debate will focus on foreign policy, given the ongoing unrest in Iraq, civil war in Syria and a preliminary agreement — deeply unpopular among Republicans — between Iran and the U.S. and five allies aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program.
There’s also the prospect that next year the party’s nominee will face Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s first term.
Bush’s early discussions about foreign policy have often drifted into his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which some critics cite as the cause of regional unrest that helped lead to the rise of the Islamic State.
Jeb Bush’s effort to avoid publicly criticizing his brother led him into a twisted series of answers about whether he would have made the same invasion decision, making for his roughest political week since he expressed interest last December in running for the White House.
While he still plans to talk about the threat posed by the Islamic State during his trip, he’ll do so in a place where the discussion can be about how the extremist group is one of several shared threats faced by America and its Western allies.
“Jeb will need to take strong stands on the pressing issues of today, such as Iran, ISIS, Syria, Russia and China,” said Ari Fleischer, communications director in George W. Bush’s first term. “The more he defines himself on today’s issues, the less he’ll need to define himself on the basis of yesterday’s issues.”
Aides said Bush aims to underscore the early themes of his approach to global affairs during his visit, namely that the U.S. ought to reinforce its relationships with its allies and demonstrate solidarity with the democratic success stories in Eastern Europe.
Expect a lot of talk about Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
“We need to restore the relationships with Europe and encourage them to be part of their own national defense, as we see Russia engaged in parts of the world they shouldn’t be,” Bush said in Michigan last week.
It’s a message that will resonate most loudly in Poland and Estonia, two nations paying particularly close attention to Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
“At a time like this, when we have a rather unpleasant and difficult situation with Russia, Poles are becoming more pro-American than they would have been otherwise,” said Marcin Zaborowski, the head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. “And having a presumed presidential candidate to come and talk to the Poles about security, defense and the relationship with the United States will be more than welcome.”
While both nations are members of the NATO alliance, Matthew Rojansky, a Wilson Center expert on former Soviet states, suggested Bush would be wise to stick more to listening during his time there than talking up the idea the U.S. would “fight by their side” in any potential conflict.
“I would love for him to progress beyond the rhetoric. But for him, there’s no win to going beyond tough talk about Putin,” Rojansky said. “Any presidential candidate worth his salt is not going to promise anything. It’s very symbolic.”