Why Jeb Bush Underwhelmed in Berlin

The Republican’s remarks on Russia were too dovish for his party and too hawkish for many Germans.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush in Des Moines, Iowa, March 7
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush in Des Moines, Iowa, March 7 (ohn Pemble)

Jeb Bush didn’t leave much of an impression in Berlin on Tuesday where the brother and son of two former presidents made a nuanced speech about the need for continued American engagement with Europe.

Bush, a former Florida governor who is expected to formally announce his bid for the presidency next week, told a conference of Christian Democrats in the German capital the West’s response to Russia’s landgrab in Ukraine could have been more “robust”. He described Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, as a “bully” and a “ruthless pragmatist who will push until someone pushes back.” He later told reporters, “Just being clear, I’m not talking about being bellicose but saying, ‘Here are the consequences of your actions.’ That would deter the kind of bad outcome we don’t want to see.”

Perhaps Bush will step up the rhetoric when he visits Estonia and Poland later this week, two Russian border states that are anxious for a strong NATO response to Russia’s provocations. But so far, he has said little that will stir anyone’s passions.

Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky argues that at least one line in Bush’s speech — “America has to lead and we have to do it in partnership with our allies” — rubbed some Germans the wrong way.

That’s different from Obama’s message of “building bridges” and it’s hard to find people in today’s Germany, even among the safely conservative audience that Bush chose, who would publicly agree that America should lead and Germany should follow.

A big reason is Bush’s younger brother and Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W., whose unilateralism and warmongering is still remembered well in internationalist and pacifist Germany.

Eli Stokols writes at Politico that Germans are conflicted about the Bush brand.

[Jeb] drew warm applause when he mentioned his father — “the greatest man alive,” Bush ad-libbed — and his work in helping to unify the country after the Cold War. But he opted not to mention his brother who remains tremendously unpopular due to the Iraq War, viewed by most here as a singly American disaster.

The Iraq War wasn’t what broke the American-German relationship. The end of the Cold War removed the need for a close alliance. Germany is now the undeclared leader of Europe while the United States are “pivoting” away to Asia.

That worries some German strategists, especially when Russia is redrawing borders in Eastern Europe. But many Germans are willing to excuse Russian militarism as somehow the West’s own fault anyway and don’t see the need for a continued American military presence in their country.

Bush’s trouble is that his reasonable remarks on Russia are still too hawkish for many Germans — who imagine their country as something of a mediator between East and West and who probably hear George W. speak when Jeb opens his mouth — but too dovish for many Republicans who actually have to vote for him.

Daniel W. Drezner argues at The Washington Post that there is practically no daylight between what Bush wants and what the Obama Administration is doing with respect to Russia.

Oh, sure, Bush talks about his response being more “robust” but we’re talking about extremely similar shades of gray.

Compared to the aggressive (Germans would say: reckless) rhetoric coming from the party’s other presidential candidates, Bush’s sober remarks will not fire up the Republican base at all, according to Drezner. “Which means that in any war of foreign policy outbidding, Jeb Bush will lose and lose big.”