Jeb Bush on the Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy

Campaign 2016 Series: A Conversation with Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush

Former Governor, State of Florida; Candidate, 2016 Republican Presidential Nomination 

Fred Hiatt

Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post


Jeb Bush, governor of Florida and a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, joins the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing U.S. foreign policy. Bush begins by outlining his vision for the United States' defense and foreign policy after the Obama administration, stressing an expanded global footprint for the U.S. military and greater collaboration with allies. After his introductory remarks, Bush and Hiatt discuss a range of challenges facing the United States, including the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, North Korea's nuclear program, the global migration and refugee crisis, and the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.


HAASS: Well, good afternoon. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Richard Haass, and I’d like to welcome you all to the Council on Foreign Relations. I also want to take a moment to welcome Senator Lindsey Graham. And I want to thank him for injecting a perspective that was both serious and humorous at the same time into the campaign and into our debate. Senator, good to see you. (Applause.)

For those of you either in the room or watching who may not know who we are, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, a think tank, and a publisher. We are dedicated to being a resource for our nearly 5,000 members, for government officials, for business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and others to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing this and other countries.

Consistent with this mission, we are making ourselves available as a resource for presidential candidates and their staffs, as well as for the American people, in the run-up to this fall’s election. And as we’ve done in the past elections, CFR is offering nonpartisan resources to help voters and citizens around the world compare the candidates and their positions. And you can visit the website to view the candidates’ stances on issues ranging from ISIS and Russia, to trade, climate, and much more.

I’ve also written to the Democratic and Republican candidates offering briefings from our experts, as well as the opportunity for them to come to the Council and speak and take questions from our members. So far, in either New York or Washington, we have had Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida; Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia; Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state; Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey; and John Kasich, the governor of Ohio.

Today we are pleased and honored to welcome and host Jeb Bush. Governor Bush, as you all know, led the state of Florida from 1999 to 2007, and has been an active voice in the national dialogue ever since. Today’s conversation will be conducted by Fred Hiatt, who’s the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, and the author of a biweekly column. Fred has been with The Post since 1981. Just to give you some perspective, when Fred joined The Post, Amazon was just a river. (Laughter.)

We will first hear prepared remarks from Governor Bush, after which he will take questions first from Fred Hiatt and then from you, our members of the Council on Foreign Relations. With that, Governor, let me welcome you to the podium and to the Council on Foreign Relations. (Applause.)

BUSH: Thank you, Richard. Thank you so much. I have enjoyed my relationship with the Council on Foreign Relations. I’ve had the chance, with Mack McLarty to lay out a strategy as it related to immigration and now it’s important for our foreign policy. Got to do it in this beautiful office. Met a lot of your fellows and really smart people. I’m honored to have many of them advise me as well. And it is an honor for me to be here with my friend Lindsey Graham, who I think not only his good humor and the fact that his voice needed to be heard, he has been the most consistent advocate for a strong America in the world. And his advice and counsel going forward will be meaningful for me. Plus, I’m going to make him travel with me on buses throughout New Hampshire to keep my humor up, which is important. (Laughter.)

Look, here’s what I believe. I believe the United States has led the world in the post-World War II era for good. Not in a way that is bad, but our leadership has really mattered. It has mattered to keep us strong. It has mattered to keep the peace. It created an order that now is being tattered at the seams. Just like a lot of things in our life today, the world is changing. And many of the things that kept us secure or kept us prosperous now are under attack. We’re living in a 21st century world that has new threats, new challenges new opportunities. And the institutions that were so successful in the mid-20th century are now tattered at the seams. People have lost confidence in them, whether it’s domestic policy or foreign policy.

And it’s important for us to reestablish, I think, the proper role for the United States in the world that we’re moving towards, because it looks, to me, as though the world is unraveling, that the order that existed is being challenged like never before. So restoring a 21st century vision of America’s leadership in the world I think is essential. And hopefully the campaign will be a place where this will be discussed from time to time. (Laughter.) Man, a girl can dream, at least. (Laughter.)

So how would the United States play a constructive role in this regard? First, I think we have to recognize, as many of the reports that the Council has done or, frankly, a lot of thinking that goes on in this building, it’s clear that we will not be strong unless we have a strong economy. And our country has seen an erosion of economic activity that makes it harder for us to project our strength to create a more secure world.

Secondly, we’ve allowed through the sequester and dysfunction in Washington not only to create a poor economic result, but we’ve also now weakened our military. It’s still the greatest fighting force in the world, but because of the trend lines that are going on right now, you can see where the United States cannot project force, and our readiness levels are so low, and our inability to procure modern weaponry, we will lose our technological advantage.

Third, we need to reinvigorate the alliances that have kept us safe. Across the world, we see doubts about the United States’ role in the world. Do we have people’s back? Are we going to be there to invoke Article 5 of NATO, for example, or have we pivoted to Asia and really done it? These are questions that now are being asked. If you’re Prime Minister Netanyahu, you wonder whether United States—whether there’s light between the United States shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. The world has been torn asunder. And our alliances have been tattered. And I think it’s important to reinvigorate those alliances if we’re serious about keeping a more peaceful world.

Fourth, our intelligence capabilities because of the tragedies of Snowden and other—and other activities have been eroded as well. And for us to create safety for the homeland, as well as safety for the attacks on—the attacks of terror in the modern Western world, we need to have much greater cooperation in terms of intelligence with our friends and allies.

The fifth thing that is taking place right now is doubts about free trade, which has created more prosperity, lifted more people out of poverty, created greater benefits than any other system of trading in the world. And today, we’ve lost—many of us, both left and right—have begun to lose faith in our free trading system. And I, for one, believe it is essential for a strong America to make sure that our allies know that we have their back, not just militarily but also economically. It is in our benefit.

And the final thing I would suggest is that we need sustained diplomacy. Part of the lessons learned, at least in the cases of Iraq and Libya, is that not only if we’re to project force and do it in partnership with our allies, we need to make sure that there is a permanent solution of security. And diplomacy needs to go hand-in-glove. One of the interesting things I’ve learned, Richard, in trying to be a student of foreign policy and talk to people that have—are much smarter about this stuff that myself is, first—actually, I have a confession to make. I actually start with the premise I don’t know everything. I know what I don’t know. And it allows me to actually learn a lot. And I think that’s the sign of a good leader.

But secondly, what’s important is if you talk to the military leaders that have been giving me advice during this—the course of this campaign, every person—to a person they say, yes, we need to strengthen our military capabilities. Yes, we have strategies that we need to implement. But it always has to be done in concert with a strong diplomatic effort, because ultimately these voids will be filled again. And the last thing we need is to send men and women in uniform in harm’s way each and every time they’re required to do so. Better to have a long-term, aggressive, diplomatic strategy with American leadership.

So what should we do? We’ll talk about—you know, look, this is not the place—if you want to come to my town hall meetings in New Hampshire, you can—I can give you the critique of the Obama administration. Maybe in the Q&A portion of this, Fred, you’ll extract that from me. I got a long list, so we’ll have—we’ll have time to talk about that.

But I’d like to talk about a more positive agenda, and it starts with economic growth. Two percent, the so-called new normal, will make it hard for the United States to lead the world in any possible way. Two percent means that more people are living in poverty—6 ½ million more people are living in poverty than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated. It means there’s a $2,300 decline in disposable income. Two percent growth means that more people are living paycheck to paycheck than ever before. Two percent growth means that workforce participation rates are lower than they were in 1977. Two percent growth rates mean, tragically, that 63 percent of Americans could not afford a car repair of $500—they don’t have the cash to do it.

Now, those that are doing well are doing even better. And the transfer payments for those living in poverty provide economic sustenance in a way that is—that is fine. But the great middle of this country is in decline. And if we’re going to get out of the mess economically so that we have confidence that America can lead the world, we need dramatically different policies: policies that will simplify the tax code and lower taxes; not policies that create crony capitalism, but real capitalism; where we don’t pick winners and losers through the tax code, we simplify the code, eliminate the friction of regulation and taxes to create higher prosperity through higher growth. We’ll never have rising income for the middle class at 2 percent, but we can if we organized ourselves at 4 percent growth. Regulatory reform across the board is essential.

Embracing the energy revolution. In fact, I would say energy independence is really not the objective. Energy security with North American resources in short order is possible if we were serious about making this the highest priority. Imagine a country that had the lowest-cost energy sources in the world with Canada, Mexico, and the United States. We could use energy as a foreign policy tool, but we also could reindustrialize our own country, giving people confidence that wages would begin to grow.

There is a strategy for high, sustained economic growth. And guess what? It also includes immigration reform. The notion that somehow we’re—our demography is going to allow us to be more productive I reject out of hand. We’re on the wrong track. Ten years from now everybody in this room will be 10 years older. Anybody with me on that? (Laughter.) Any dissenters? Well, the simple fact is our demography is changing dramatically. The pyramid that used to look like this is starting to look like this. And if we could pick and choose who could come to this country—because they would come if we invited them, in a legal basis—we could grow our economy and be much more productive. In fact, we would lead the world. We would be an economic superpower if we combined reform of regulation to the 21st century, embracing the energy revolution, dealing with the entitlement challenges, and focusing on a 21st-century tax code. Combined with an immigration strategy that’s focused on economic growth, it would lift people’s spirits up and would allow us to get back in the game as it relates to our role in the world. I do not see how we could be the leader of the world unless we regain our footing economically that we have lost dramatically over the long haul.

Secondly, we need to rebuild the military if we’re serious. Look, the president—this president is a phenomenal speaker, and from time to time he maybe gets off-script a little bit and sends signals of strength that have never been backed up. The red line is a good example of that. The pivot to Asia, and Asians are wondering where are we pivoting. First of all, the Europeans wonder, why are you pivoting away? The Asians wonder, where’s the pivot? And there’s no follow-up. The basic fact is that we have great, grandiose language that’s not backed up. And the place to back it up most particularly—not to be the world’s policeman as the president suggests from time to time, but to create a more peaceful world—is to rebuild our military in a way that is serious.

That means we need to end the sequester, here and now. The dysfunction in Washington needs to stop. The first priority is to keep us safe, and gutting the military is not the way to create a more peaceful world.

We need to add the number of the Army back to a 490,000 force level that would mean that we’re serious to be back in the game. We need to dramatically increase the readiness. More than half of the Marines that are stationed in the United States do not meet the classification of readiness—half of them. Our Navy has been—has been cut in half, from the size of—at the start of Operation Desert Storm. And two weeks ago, the secretary of defense called for further cuts.

We have not procured weapons systems in a long, long while. The B-52 continues to be the long-range bomber. It was inaugurated in the era of Harry Truman. It should not be true that pilots are younger than the planes that they fly. We still have technological superiority against our—against our enemies, but that gap is narrowing.

And so we need to be—make an all-in commitment to modernize the military, to bring force levels back up, to create a healthy deterrent. We’ll never get Europe to be serious about its obligations as it relates to NATO when they see these sequesters and the trend lines being—of continuous cuts.

We need to also do something that I think is necessary, which is to move to the 21st century. We can’t fight the fights of the Cold War and not recognize the fact that we now have—we have serious threats as it relates to cybersecurity, the threats of terror, and across the board. And that will require reforming the Pentagon—reforming its mindset, perhaps, but reforming how it operates.

We need procurement reform. John McCain and Mac Thornberry have a good, healthy first start. But it shouldn’t take forever for a weapons system to be built. It shouldn’t require two or three of the defense contractors that have the scale to make this happen. We need to open the system up and allow for much more innovation, and speed, and agility for our procurement.

We need management reform in the Department of Defense. There are more non-civilians in the Department of Defense than people in uniform. That’s happened over an extended period of time, and now is the chance, I think, for us to reform the system to shift—to take power away from the commands and power away from the Pentagon, and shift more of this power into the field where we see languishing efforts. We should be focusing on making sure that the fighting force is the best trained and the best equipped. And we can do this in a 21st century management way.

I think we also need to, as I said, refocus on the threats of terrorism, which means we need to rebuild our intelligence capability, both human and technological, to make sure that it is second to none. I, for one—if I was president of the United States, one of my first trips would be to the NSA. This president has gone there once. These people are patriots. They have kept us safe. They are on the vanguard of cybersecurity not just for their agency, and not just for our country, but for the entire government. They should be respected far more than they’ve been respected. And I believe we need to be serious about this and work with Congress to reauthorize all elements of the Patriot Act and make sure that cybersecurity is front and center, because it is one of the gravest threats that we face.

Finally, we need to deal with the threat—the asymmetric threat of terror, that is new. These people in the caliphate the size of Indiana are not living in caves. They’re not isolated and marginalized, as al-Qaida has been, although they are on the run as well. ISIS is a caliphate, a nation-state almost, with 30(,000) to 40,000 battle-tested terrorists that have received hundreds of millions of dollars. And each day they exist in the form of a caliphate they’re a threat to our way of life.

Now, the president will say, well, they’re not going to invade us, as though that is the only way a threat could be carried out. Of course that’s not the only way it could be carried out. Our vulnerability is our freedom. And we have to be vigilant. But we’ll never be vigilant just by playing defense. And we’ll never be vigilant thinking that this is some kind of videogame war, that you can just do it from the sky. Only United States can lead a coalition to destroy ISIS. And it should be the first priority of the next president of the United States.

In August of this year, I laid out a detailed strategy to do this, not in reaction to the tragedy of Paris and the tragedy of San Bernardino, in advance of it, because the threat, as Lindsey knows, existed long before the attacks on our country and the attack that took place in Paris. We need to embed our troops with the Iraqi military. There’s a great resistance in this administration. That needs to be done. We need to arm the Kurds directly, in my mind. There’s some discussion about why that’s important. I think we need to show support directly for the Kurds. But more important the weapon—the caliber of the support that we give needs to be significantly upgraded.

We need to—we need to regain our footing with our Sunni partners that created the surge, a successful effort that created a fragile, secure Iraq when we left that has been destroyed by the lack of attention and activity. We need to get back in the game with them. We need to get the lawyers off the backs of the warfighters, for goodness sakes. This is war. This is not a law enforcement exercise. Which means that approvals for sorties should be given much more leeway for the commanders on the ground, rather than having to get permission from the Pentagon.

This is not the way we’re going to be successful in dealing with people who don’t play by our rules. We’ll adhere to international standards. ISIS won’t. We don’t have to be like them, but we certainly should not tie the hands of the warfighters, as we do today in Syria and Iraq. We need a no-fly zone, or a series of no-fly zones in Syria. We need safe zones in Syria. And be serious about it. This tragedy of the refugee crisis will only be resolved if we are serious about bringing stability in Iraq. It is in our national security interest to do so.

That is a proper strategy, where America leads, where we will have special operators training a force in Syria and emboldening the Iraqi military, and engaging with the Kurds and Sunnis to bring about stability in this region. If we’re serious about eradicating terrorism, we have to recognize that this is a long-haul effort. First, we need to eliminate the caliphate, and then we need to stick with it because our freedom is at stake. And to me, this is the fight of our time. And we cannot take a step back.

One thing that makes it more difficult for me to imagine how we’re going to be successful in this is when we pull back, voids are filled by an aggressive Russia as it relates to Syria, by Iran fomenting instability in the region in ways now that we can only imagine. A hundred-billion dollars is going into the coffers of a legitimized Iran that now is a nuclear-threshold country that will use that money for purposes that won’t be in the benefit of the Iranian people.

Here’s what my—here is what my belief is: Mullahs do not go quietly into the night. They don’t. This will enhance their ambitions of instability in the region for them to project their force to create a more dominant position in the region. We have to confront the ambitions of Iran while we’re focusing on destroying ISIS.

This journey will be arduous but it is a fight worth having. And without American leadership, we will have chaos in the world. We will have capitals that will be unable to deal with these threats of terror in Europe and in the United States. This is not the time to play defense; this is the time to play offense. And I think we can build a bipartisan consensus to make it happen.

The final thing I’d say is that in the America that I envision, it’s an America that doesn’t play the world of the—that doesn’t play the role of the world’s policeman. That is not what we’re about. I have tired from politicians that say: My nuanced, sophisticated view is up here, and anybody that disagrees with me is either in cahoots with the “death to America” crowd, or believes that we’re the world’s policeman, or believes that we’re the occupying force.

That is just not true. That has never been, in American history, how we operate. We operate by leading. And when we lead, we create peace through strength. That is what we should be focused on, not playing the straw man argument or the straw man game that is creating divisions that have made it harder and harder for a bipartisan consensus to emerge.

And so I conclude my remarks by saying that I will strive to restore the bipartisan consensus that used to be the norm in American politics. The world is desperately seeking American leadership. They watch our campaigns play out and they wonder, what the heck is going on? (Laughter.) They truly do. They watch our debates. They watch our politics far more than we do. And I think they’re yearning for American leadership, traditional American leadership that has been successful in creating the peace.

And we need to restore that America for the rest of the world to be able to follow, to create more peace and prosperity for all of us in this country and for the rest of the world. That is my mission, and I look forward to talking about this in the months to come as a candidate for president of the United States. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

HIATT: Thank you, Governor, for those remarks.

BUSH: Yep.

HIATT: A lot to—a lot to talk about. Thank you.

You cited President Obama saying that they can’t invade us. He said, it’s not World War III; it’s not an existential threat. Some people would go further and say the point he’s making is we have a tendency to overreact and lose sight of what may be bigger challenges out there for the long run, let’s say the challenge of a rising China.

BUSH: Yep.

HIATT: And so is there a risk that—out on the campaign trail where this is now being presented as enemy number one, the country will again veer too far in the other direction?

BUSH: I think we have—we have global interests. We’re America. We don’t have regional interests; we have global interests. We’re going to have to deal with the emergence of a rising China, or a China that may have economic insecurities and play out in terms of their aggressive nature in the region similar to what Russia is doing. You know, failed domestic policy yields a much more aggressive Russia overseas.

We don’t have the luxury of saying, well, it’s only one thing. That would create total chaos. I mean, I’d love to see a little more attention to our neighborhood. And I think the next president better restore the relationship with Canada and Mexico to start with. It’s pretty hard to imagine how we’ve been pushed away from Canada. It’s our largest trading partner. It’s our strongest ally in many ways, culturally in many—don’t tell the Canadians but we’re pretty close. (Laughter.) They don’t seem to like that.

But the simple fact is that we need to restore relationships across the board. We have security interests and economic interests, because we are a global power, around the world. So it’s not an either/or thing. And I don’t think it is underestimating the threat by suggesting that a group that is organized to destroy Western civilization—we might want to take them at their word. And if they’re getting hundreds of millions of dollars of illicit money—and the fact that they are controlling territory as though they were a nation state, we should treat them for what—we should deal with them in the way that’s important. This should not be minimized.

This president has viewed this with a policy of incrementalism. I mean, in the last year twice he said that we don’t have a strategy to deal with ISIS. Well, why not? Why wouldn’t we have a strategy? He’s moving, without admitting it, towards a strategy, but it’s all tactics after tactics rather than having a clear vision that draws people towards the cause, and that’s just not the right way to lead.

He talks about not having boots on the ground, but now we’ve gone—after he eliminated the number of the troops altogether in Iraq, now we have 3,500 troops. He talks about not having boots on the ground. I don’t know what’s the difference between a special operator’s boot and a combat troop, but those are boots on the ground. And they’re in Syria. This is not how we lead. This creates a lack of certainty that we’re not going to garner the support in the Arab world.

And then you add on this, the Iranian deal—which he heralds as a great success—which makes it harder for us to be able to mobilize the necessary support in the Sunni Arab world to be able to support a Sunni-led army in Syria that ultimately has to be the entity that takes out ISIS.

HIATT: When you said the world is wondering what the heck is going on—

BUSH: That was a diplomatic term. We use that. (Laughter.)

HIATT: —I’d say it’s not only foreigners who are wondering that at the moment. (Laughter.) And it raises a serious question about the ability of a democracy to pursue the kind of long-term, sustained strategy that you’re talking about.

You know, I remember after 2001 people said, oh, well, we shouldn’t have left Afghanistan when the Soviet Union retreated; we’re not going to make that mistake again. You’ve said the United States make a mistake then by pulling out in 2011, but, you know, Americans—the polls all showed Americans were tired of war.

BUSH: Yep.

HIATT: And now the people who seem to be getting traction are either the “tired of war” side or the “let’s carpet bomb until the desert glows.” I mean, so talk a little bit about what—

BUSH: Yeah.

HIATT: —what does this campaign tell us, and how do you—how do you conduct a foreign policy like this is a democracy?

BUSH: Well, first of all, we need to—that’s why I think the first—the highest priority is to restore sustained economic growth. The disaffection that people feel is real. We have not made the transition to the 21st century, nor have many of the other countries of the developed world. And the strains you’re seeing play out because people are deeply disaffected and they don’t believe the institutions work for them, and so they don’t necessarily default to the premise that America’s leadership is of benefit to them.

If you created higher, sustained economic growth where people’s income was growing rather than in decline, I think you’d have a greater acceptance of America’s leadership in the world. Look, if we don’t, the consequences will play out just as they always have in history. There’s nothing new about this. Voids are filled, and they’re filled now by extraordinary, dangerous threats that are different than they were, but they’re as bad or greater.

And you also have the nation states that are opposed to us on the rise as well. So I think we have to make the case—and I think a majority of Republicans at least believe that the case is that America’s leadership in the world is a force for good. That’s not to say everybody in our party agrees with that. And then there’s the lack of seriousness, at least by the front-running candidate that—I wouldn’t know what his policies are, but when he doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is, that’s cause for pause, I think.

And his spokesman says, well, he doesn’t need to know all the details about it because you just need to know he’ll use it. (Laughter.) That’s not laughable. Someone who proposes a 45 percent tariff across the board on China, it’s not a serious proposal. It’s basically the advocacy of a global depression that will wipe out the middle class in this country and see retaliation that will create—will wreak havoc. I’m the only guy confronting this.

HIATT: So why is he gaining so much traction?

BUSH: I’m the only guy confronting this because people are anxious about their future. They’ve latched onto the large personality on the stage, but the reality is that he’s not a serious candidate. And he’ll get wiped out in the general election. This is not a political gathering, so we can move on, but the simple fact is that we have to restore a traditional role in foreign policy. And you can’t do this by, you know, rambling around, by saying Putin can take care of ISIS; China can take care of North Korea, it’s their problem; and in the same—literally in a 24-hour news cycle, propose a 45 percent tariff on the country that you’re saying it’s your responsibility to take care of North Korea.

There need to be candidates that stand up and saying there’s a better path than the path of the left, which is a path of retrenchment, and the path, you know, in an emerging part of the right that is viewing this where we don’t have a security interest in areas where we do. I think we have to recognize that these threats are real, that they have a huge impact on millions of people in our country, and that the first objective of the president of the United States needs to be to keep us safe. And you can’t keep us safe by talking trash without backing it up with serious plans.

HIATT: Let me ask you—you said Saudi Arabia and Egypt are important allies, or should be important allies in this fight, and could be. But the Sisi regime is now—has become more repressive—

BUSH: Yeah.

HIATT: —than Mubarak ever was. And again, after 2001, the lesson learned was autocracy creates violence. Tyranny creates violence. I remember that from the second inaugural address of President Bush.

So was that wrong? Are we—are you now prepared to work with dictators? Or is that—

BUSH: Yeah. I think—I think we have to have a reality-based foreign policy. In the case of Mubarak, it could have been an opportunity, rather than to cut him loose and create a chaotic situation that now has yielded, you know, a more autocratic regime and stability, which is the first thing that people seek when they see chaos—maybe we should have engaged with Mubarak to create a peaceful transition away from Mubarak. We had that influence, and we no longer have it.

We don’t have the same influence in Saudi Arabia to have an influence on their policies. We don’t have—we certainly don’t have the influence on Iran, I mean, although, you know, the notion somehow naively is that we don’t have to; just mullahs will go quietly into the night. They just will change their—unilaterally concede everything and everything will be great. They’ll just change; that their forces will just come up, similar to Cuba—grant, without any strings attached, diplomatic relations and we’ll have a flourishing Cuba.

Well, the fact is there’s more repression in Iran and more repression in Cuba when we’ve made these unilateral concessions. There are more people executed in Iran than any country in the Middle East. It’s a brutal despot that controls it. And if you have any disagreement with the regime, you’re likely to be executed, not just imprisoned.

HIATT: So when there was a green revolution or attempted revolution in 2009—

BUSH: Yeah.

HIATT: —how would you have responded to that?

BUSH: Well, I would have shown solidarity. It took how long—how many days did it take for the president to utter any support? It was already finished. It was already gone. It was 12 days of marching in the street—incredible courage to do that—and the United States—maybe it was early in the regime—the presidency. I don’t know. I don’t know why there wasn’t a reaction of showing support, but there was none. And I’m not sure what resources were available to provide support.

But I do think, look, from a foreign-policy point of view, our security needs to be first and foremost. That should be the driver of foreign policy. But it’s not exclusive. We can promote democracy and freedom in the world. We should share our values. We don’t have to impose them certainly. That’ll never work. But we should share our values, because that creates stability. That will help us stay secure.

We should have economic interests that we advance and that we support. We should support human rights. I mean, there isn’t just one way of doing this. And I think, in the case of Iran and Cuba and other countries, we should be on the side of the people that are repressed. And we used to be able to communicate with them directly. I think those things have eroded dramatically. And I believe we should restore some of those, not as the principal advocacy of a foreign policy, but part of it for sure.

HIATT: Let me take you around the world a little bit, because I’m sure questions will come back to Iran and the Middle East. There’s general consensus, I think, that the only people who have any leverage over North Korea right now are the leaders in China. But they’ve been reluctant to exercise it in a serious way to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program because they fear instability more than nuclearization.

Do you—would you have any different approach in trying to persuade the Chinese that they should behave differently?

BUSH: Well, I think we need full engagement with the Chinese across the board. I mean, it’s—for a couple of reasons. One, there are—we have a convergence of strategic interests. North Korea would certainly be one of those. Two, there could be huge misunderstandings, because my experience with China—I started traveling there in 2007 three or four times a year. And in talking to people, it became pretty clear, as a neophyte going to China, that they have no clue about us. And frankly, we have no clue about them. And that difference can create all sorts of bad outcomes.

The best example is—it seems like a small thing—in 2009, after the president’s reelection, there was the summit in Palm Springs. And Mrs. Obama didn’t go to the summit, and the glamorous first lady of China went with President Xi. And the scandal in China was that Mrs. Obama and the United States government—and the United States, therefore—were insulting China and its first couple by not having—by not being there.

And every meeting I had in Beijing started out for the first 10 minutes lambasting me about why it was, as an American, why it was that we insulted China. And I’m thinking, you know what, it could be that Mrs. Obama was worried about the science project of Malala (sic). I mean, we’re different. We don’t think the same way they do. I’m sure that they did not, you know, try to go out of their way to insult the country, 1.2 billion or 1.3 billion people of China, or the first couple when they were trying to establish better personal relationships. But that’s how you get into trouble is by not having full engagement.

So, yeah, I mean, we should be engaged to—because we have a mutual security interest as it relates to North Korea. But I think we need to deal with China from a position of strength, not weakness. And everything should be on the table, and it should be done based on mutual respect for sure. But we shouldn’t—we shouldn’t pull back when they attack us in terms of their attacks on cybersecurity, which they continue to do. We shouldn’t pull back when they are challenging the traditional maritime routes that have created prosperity for their own country and hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty, where they’re trying to challenge the legitimacy of international law. We should be—we should be forceful on this.

And we should—if we’re going to pivot to Asia, which I’m not necessarily thinking is appropriate, we ought to be clear about, you know, what our role is in the region, which brings me to another element of how you would, I think, deal with China from a position of strength, which is supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, supporting a free trading agreement. It may not be perfect. And perhaps the next president will have a chance to renegotiate elements of it, just as President Obama did with the trade agreements that his predecessor had on the table for Congress to approve. It could be enhanced and improved.

But the fact is, if we don’t pass this agreement, we’re sending a signal that we’re not serious in Asia. The rest of our allies will basically receive this as a legitimate—and I think they’ll do so legitimately—that we’re leaving. We’re abandoning the region. And that would be an unmitigated disaster. Imagine trading standards that would look more like Chinese. Imagine trading standards in Asia that would not respect intellectual property or environmental challenges or whatever it is. The U.S. trading standards are the ones that create the chance for more people to benefit from them than the Chinese standards. And we should embrace these things, because it’s in our security interest to do so.

HIATT: What’s your sense so far of the current president of China? Do you think he has a good handle on the economic reform process?

BUSH: I’ve met him several times. He’s very dynamic for sure. This command-and-control approach I just—you know, look, I’m a little “l” liberal, entrepreneurial, capitalist-loving, God-fearing American. (Laughs.) I just—I think our system is the best system. Fix our system and it will lead the world.

The command-and-control approach—while China is a very well-organized economy, you can’t manage something as big and as complex as a modern economy from—with, you know, a handful of elites. And the idea that you can intervene in markets and not expect a bad result—trying to restrict capital flows, manipulating the currency perhaps, all of these things end up having a bad result rather than a good result.

The China miracle is phenomenal. It is something to be admired. But I don’t think it’s sustainable in its current form, no matter how impressive President Xi is.

HIATT: We should go to questions. Let me just ask one since it wouldn’t be the Washington Post editorial board if I didn’t. You said the strength of economy is crucial. You’ve proposed big increases in military spending; a tax cut that, even with the most dynamic scoring, will add to the deficit. I understand if you get 4 percent over time that would reduce the deficit. But isn’t there a danger that—or how are you going to prevent increasing the debt? And isn’t that a national security issue too?

BUSH: Fred, it is. And I’m glad you asked the question, because I’m asked it a lot amongst real people—

HIATT: (Laughs.)

BUSH: —which is heartening, to be honest with you, that that actually is a concern in places like Grinnell, Iowa and Manchester, New Hampshire. They’re concerned about that.

And here’s how you do it. Growing at a faster rate yields significantly more revenue than growing at 1 ½ to 2 percent, which is the new normal. It lessens demands on government, which I think is important. But I’ve laid out detailed plans as it relates to spending as well. You can’t do this simply by cutting taxes. The dynamic effect improves the revenue intake, for sure, with a growing economy. And it will put money in people’s pockets, which needs to be the objective of an effective tax policy. And it allows us to be competitive globally, as it relates to the reforms of our corporate tax play that I’ve laid out. But it’s not enough to deal with the looming deficit. So how would you do that?

You challenge everything, and increase spending which, you know, based on the estimates of our team is about 25 (billion dollars) to $30 billion of additional spending per year. I’ve actually—I’m nerdy enough, wonky enough, that I’ve priced out every one of the things that we’ve proposed. And where you save the money is in entitlement reform. If you take Medicaid and you say to the states, no more mandates on how Medicaid needs to be administered, you get to do what every person in the public policy world would love to have happen, which is to answer the following question: If we weren’t doing it this way, how would we do it?

And to create a 21st century Medicaid plan should not cost as much as it does today, would not have a pay and chase system, would not have fraud and abuse by all estimates over 10 percent. It would be a modern insurance plan that would empower people to make more choices at a lower cost. I would take that deal, of a block grant plus CPI, then the Medicaid plan right now. Last year it grew at 18 percent. The average run rate over the next decade is probably six or seven percent. Simply by block granting Medicaid to the states and allowing them to create a 21st century insurance plan for low-income people saves hundreds of billions of dollars.

If you do the same thing as it relates to Social Security, which we have a plan that brings about solvency, and Medicare, you’re in the hunt. And then the final part of it is, we need career civil service reform in Washington, D.C. And wherever possible, we need to shift power away from Washington, whether it’s our—the student loan program, which I’ve proposed eliminating going forward and moving to an income repayment system that would save money and also take away power from Washington, D.C., or a welfare reform program that lifts people out of poverty as its objective rather than traps people.

If you want to get people out of poverty to grow income, which then the government then could receive the receipts of, you need to promote marriage, promote work, and promote education. And you do that, and provide support for people to be lifted up so that the highest marginal tax rate in this country right now is someone who’s living at the poverty level and wants to rise up above it. The economics of that don’t work. So why wouldn’t we want to transform that? I’ve laid out a plan to do that. Block granting, TANF, food stamps, and housing assistance—putting it in one lump sum.

And the federal government’s role would be, what are your outcomes that you’re expecting in return for the money that we’re giving you and the freedom to be able to develop a 21st century plan? We don’t have the luxury of having a 20th century government on top of a 21st century world. And you know what? Some people love this stuff, of challenging the orthodoxy of our times and challenging institutions that are broken. Some people cut and run. They just don’t find it interesting. I love fixing things. I see a fire, I go to the fire. This is—this is why we reduce—the state of Florida during my time as governor grew by—people voted with their feet—3 million more people lived in Florida than the day I started. And we reduced the government workforce by 13,000.

HIATT: Let me let people get back to foreign policy, or Richard will be angry at me. (Laughter.) Please—

BUSH: I’m sure he believes economic security is the first step to national security.

HIATT: Keep your answer—keep your questions, questions. Keep them short and identify yourself, please. Yeah, back at the back there.

Q: Hi, Governor Bush. Thank you for being here. I’m John Paul Farmer from Microsoft. And as you might expect, my question is on technology.

Some recent federal initiatives, like the U.S. Digital Service and the Presidential Innovation Fellows have been tapping into some of the most creative folks around the country to solve problems. And the State Department and Defense have started to get on board recently. What do you see as the role of technology in advancing American foreign policy, making American government more effective and efficient?

BUSH: Well, first of all, I read a lengthy article about the effort that the president has led. He’s actually gone to recruit people to—in Silicon Valley. And I found it really interesting, and fascinating, and encouraging, but I haven’t seen the results. Maybe the article was old and, you know, hasn’t played out. I hope it does, because we are—as I said, we’re living—our government operates as though it’s 1975 and the world we’re in is dramatically different. And one way to reduce costs is to embrace technology across the board.

Think about the Department of Veterans Affairs. I hope the team is in there, the nerds are in there destroying the old systems, because you cannot—I mean, most places—most health care outlets right now you can go online and you can get a—you can get an appointment. And you can get it, bam, like that. And it saves—it creates productivity gains for the providers. It saves a ton of money. It provides a convenient way of receiving the health care that you need. It’s a paper-driven system for—in the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest health care system in the world.

They have 330,000 people working there. They have career civil service protections. Three people have been fired by the most atrocious act I can imagine. A hundred and forty million dollars in bonuses, part of which went to reduce the waiting list to get care, to get your assessment or to actually get care. They reduced the waiting list by not giving people care, just reduced the waiting list. And they got bonuses. Three people have been fired.

That’s a system that is designed for self-protection. And technology can tear down those barriers and allow for the customer, in this case the vet, to be able to get—to be empowered to make decisions for themselves. And I think that’s the way you do this across the board. You shift power to people and you harness technology for them to be able to be informed consumers. So if it’s—we have 40—I’ll give you an example. There are—I’m sorry. This is domestic policy again.

But we have 44 programs for early childhood education. We spent $22 billion a year from the federal government alone. That doesn’t even count the state monies or private monies that go to early childhood education. Forty-four separate programs, all protected, all having bureaucracies, all paper-driven, all with forms, all with headaches. You can just imagine what that looks like to try to access this stuff. Why not block grant that to states and say, you can—you can voucherize this?

I would trust a mom living in poverty to love their child with their heart and soul a lot more than some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in one of those 44 programs in Washington, D.C., because that bureaucrat also has to have a corresponding bureaucrat at a local or state government to fill out the forms to comply with all of this. This is perpetuating a lack of productivity that is dangerous now. We don’t have the luxury to operate with an ineffective government in force. So the idea of harnessing technology, as you’re describing it, I think is the key to break down these barriers for us to be a lot more productive.

HIATT: There’s—iMessaging, as you now know—as you know, is now encrypted in a way that the government can’t get into, even with a court order. And there are government officials, like Cyrus Vance here, who think Apple should have a back door so that they could get in. What do you think about that?

BUSH: Yeah. That’s a difficult question. It was asked at the debate. It was a pretty substantial question, actually, in the debate. I could give kudos for Cavuto for asking it. Better than fantasy football. You know, that was a great question, but—(laughter).

This question is an important one because if we—if we go overboard on this, it’s legitimate to make that claim that we should—that when there’s a national security threat to have the ability to go through the backdoor and determine if that threat is real. But you could also end up shifting people’s platforms overseas. You could end up with noncompliant technological entities that aren’t U.S.-based that would hurt our economy and also challenge us and make it less possible for us to create a more secure America.

So I think—I think, first of all, the trust has to be rebuilt. The Snowden case was a—just an unmitigated disaster. For anybody to think that this guy’s a patriot when he disclosed sources and methods and jeopardized incredible patriots and heroes that are—that don’t get a pat on the back, because they can’t. They’re not available for a pat on the back. We have jeopardized our national security by these disclosures. And it is—it has created a lack of trust with our European allies, and with the technology companies that now feel pressure overseas as they try to continue to do business.

So this mess has to start with the president trying to rebuilt trust with these large technology companies that are U.S.-based, and then do the same as it relates to our allies. But it’s not going to be easy. You can’t just say, well, we’re just going to—we’re going to pass a law and require this, because we may not—we actually may have a worse outcome if we do that if we’re not careful.


Q: Jeff Laurenti.

Governor, you exhorted us this afternoon to pay more attention to our neighborhood, and you’ve provided distinguished leadership to the state more than any other faces, not only Cuba but all of Latin America.

With the spread of democracy throughout that region you’ve had a number of left-wing governments coming to power, some of which have caused a certain ácido, stomach acid, in Washington, even leading to some efforts to subvert either Venezuela or Honduras at one point or another. And even those that are not left-wing governments elected there are much more sympathetic to Cuba than to the U.S. in that—(inaudible).

BUSH: Yeah. Well, that’s always been the case.

Q: Right. And given the importance of this region to our immigration problems and the living standards there, how do you see the United States being able to influence politically its partners in Latin America? Is destabilization still on the agenda, or is the Monroe Doctrine dead or in need of being retooled?

BUSH: Well, first of all, I think the best way to deal with a better relationship with Latin America is electing me president of the United States—(laughter)—because we have neglected Latin America across the board in not just this administration but previous administrations as well and we need to get back in the game.

We’ve gone through this phase of massive Chinese investment in the region, and it hasn’t worked because commodity prices have gone through the floor and their mercantile, you know, capitalism approach has not yielded the economic benefits that were expected.

And so I think we have a good opportunity to reengage both diplomatically, certainly economically, and deal with the challenges of the side effects of illegal immigration, the drug war, the issues that plagued these countries that we have a common interest in trying to solve.

The first place where that would be a good place to start, as I mentioned, is Mexico and Canada. I think it’s time for a reevaluation—call it want you want—of enhancing the benefits of this North American trading bloc, which means, you know, that we would reengage just to go through this whole process, not to—not another treaty but to see where the benefits are that we could enhance to our mutual economic interests.

The second thing I’d say is that the Northern Triangle countries are desperately needing American leadership and friendship—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—where you have chaos because of the lack of rule of law. And the dangers for our country are going to play out in all sorts of ways. The majority of the immigrants crossing the border right now, the great majority—on a net basis, Mexico’s immigration is basically zero. It’s flat. But there’s been a surge of people leaving these countries that are crime-ridden and quite dangerous.

And we need to do what we did about 15 years ago when we started El Proyecto Grancolombiano. When a strong leader emerges that wants to cooperate and partner with the United States, we should take them up on the effort because a stable Central America will help us deal with these flows of immigrants that are going to be a big drain on our economy. And the challenges of the drug trade are playing out in terms of massive addiction increases that are taking place.

And you may not sense it here in New York. I don’t know if you do or don’t, but I can tell you when you campaign in places that you never would have expected heroin overdoses to be growing in double-digit, like New Hampshire. This is because there is low-grade—high-grade heroin, low-cost heroin easily crossing our border. And so we need to engage—we have to control our border, of course, but we need to engage in these countries in a much more comprehensive way than we have been doing.

HIATT: And would a Bush administration be doing anything different with regard to the confrontation that seems to be building in Venezuela right now?

BUSH: Yeah, we should be on the side of people that want freedom in Cuba—in Venezuela, and Cuba for that matter.

HIATT: And what would you do?

BUSH: Well, I wouldn’t be silent. The notion that somehow—you know, look, Chavez won his first election probably in a free election, and since then he has taken away all aspects of what a democracy looks like. He’s destroyed civil society. He’s taken away the institutions that are protected. He’s stacked the decks through the supreme court. He has used an election to hijack a democracy.

And I think we have—it’s not that we have a duty to do this, but I think we have a responsibility. It’s in our security interest to promote those that are the popular will of Venezuela. A great majority of Venezuelans oppose this regime, and the United States seems to be passive in its relationship with Venezuela. God forbid if we were, you know, accused of being interventionist.

There is a difference between interventionism and complete passivity. There’s always a third way. In this administration, if you’re not like the nuanced—you know, supporting the nuanced view that somehow you’re a warmonger or an occupier or an interventionist and you’re—you know, we’re going back to the language of the ‘60s and ‘70s about our foreign policy. That’s just not true. Engagement is what we need and I think we could do that in a much more effective way.

We now have a chance to show support for Argentina. It’s a great opportunity for us to get back in the game with Macri, who is proposing some extraordinarily bold reforms. And I think we should show support across the board for people that are supporting free-market economics and supporting freedom in their country. There’s ways that we can provide support that—right now it just appears to me that we’re quite passive.

HIATT: Right here in the second row.

Q: I’m Raghida Dergham, columnist with Al Hayat and founder of Beirut Institute.

And, Governor, I wanted to ask you about the mullah thing that you mentioned. If I understand you correctly, you said it doesn’t matter who would come out in the elections in February in Iran because it will be another mullah, moderate or conservative. So what will you do about Iran’s ambitions, regional ambitions, particularly after lifting the sanctions and particularly after what we see as a win—or is seen as a win for Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and the regime in Damascus? What would you do about Syria?

BUSH: Thank you.

First of all, the notion of mullahs not going quietly in the night is just a term that when—if you believe that if you make unilateral concessions that somehow it will be a transformative event, there’s nothing in history that suggests that.

People make changes when they have no other options, and by empowering the Iranian regime and thinking that somehow the differences that exist—which they clearly do exist inside of Iran—are enough to be transformative I think is naïve beyond belief. I just think that that is the wrong approach. And we’ll see that play out.

In fact, after the agreement think about what’s happened. After the agreement was signed and we’ve patted ourselves on the back, and it was negotiated in a way that it wasn’t a treaty and it—you know, now it’s moving forward, we’ve seen Iran twice now test long- and medium-range missile capability against, you know, the sanctions that have been imposed. We’ve seen more imprisonment, more executions. We’ve seen their leaders continue the “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” chants almost every week. We’ve seen a more aggressive Iran as it relates to support for the Shia militia in Iraq. The support for Hezbollah has become stronger. They’ve doubled down on it.

They’ve actually exported Iranian—the Quds Forces are in Syria right now and they—you know, Soleimani, against U.S. sanctions—I think it was within a week of the agreement being signed—is off the Moscow. And surprisingly, in a couple of weeks after that, the Russians do this rear guard action to establish a military presence that is extraordinarily strong in Syria. They have taken advantage of us each and every step along the way.

And so I don’t expect there to be any changes in the policies. Irrespective of what the February election looks like, I think you’re going to see this theocracy still suppress its people and have as its organizing principle to continue to be the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

So, going forward, we have to confront those ambitions, made harder, as you said, by the $100 billion. We confront it by reestablishing sanctions wherever possible. We confront it by reestablishing a stronger relationship with Israel. They may not think that we’re serious, although they will over time. They certainly think that Israel is serious.

And so two substantive acts would be, one, symbolic: Move the embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Two, if it’s not already done, reauthorize the technology agreement that gives Israel certainty that they will have technological advantage of any of the threats that they face in the Middle East. And then we need to engage in a strategy to deal with ISIS and Assad. This has been made much more complicated by this Iranian agreement. This has not helped us. It’s made it more difficult.

So this is—look, this is not an easy thing to do, but this is where, if you look at where the threats are—and there’s a long list, the 3:00 in the morning, kind of wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat list—I would say this: the convergence of an aggressive Iran in the region and ISIS are the two threats that we have to deal with. And from day one we have to confront those ambitions. The agreement itself cannot be complied with. We have to—we have to reestablish a different relationship that is global in our policies as it relates to Iran.

The fallacy of saying, well, we’re just going to deal with the nuclear program and not deal with all the other elements that are as destabilizing as the nuclear agreement is just the wrong way to go.

HIATT: We have time for one more if it’s a quick question.

Q: Hi, Governor Bush. Thank you so much. This is a richly substantive conversation. I’m Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First.

You talked about American global leadership. And you also mentioned the importance of immigration to our economy, which undergirds our ability to lead. I was privileged to serve on that task force with you on immigration, and I was struck by the quick convergence of opinion around the importance of refugees to our country and how it speaks to our values as a nation.

You know the most important form of leadership is leadership by example. This week the Senate’s going to debate a bill that would effectively shut down the resettlement of Syrian refugees to the United States, people fleeing Assad and ISIS, caught in the middle, and also Iraqis who helped our military when we were over there.

In a time when we are facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, is America doing enough to lead?

BUSH: Look, when the FBI director says that he cannot give assurances that there are terrorists embedded in refugee populations, that gives me pause. And until there is certainty about the process—this is a new phenomenon. When I was governor we dealt with a refugee crisis of Haitians coming across. And 10 percent—an estimated 10 percent died crossing the Straits of Florida to seek freedom because of the conditions in Haiti. It was a tragic situation.

But no one ever envisioned—we had public-health issues for sure; large number of people that had contracted tuberculosis, other issues like that. But no one ever suggested that there were embedded in this group of people, simply seeking, you know, safe haven, that there were terrorists. And I think that new reality has to be dealt with before we start bringing large number of refugees into our country.

We have a role to play—two roles that are important. One is to deal with the 4 million refugees that are in these camps, where the United States needs to play a significant role, both the government and not-for-profit agencies. And I think we’re doing that. Maybe we could do more there.

And I think we need to deal with why there is a refugee crisis, which is ultimately where the United States needs to play a constructive role, which is destroying ISIS with a strategy that will bring stability to Syria, which also means it’s more complicated because we also have to deal with regime change, because this refugee crisis is—has been created principally by the barrel bombing of innocents by the most brutal regime in the world, supported by Iran, which—this is why I find this agreement so disturbing. Two hundred fifty thousand, at a minimum, people have died. Four million people are in refugee camps. And it creates a situation where we have a breeding ground, that if we don’t deal with this in relatively short order, we’re going to create real problems for the rest of the world.

So I think it’s—I think it’s an important part of who we are that we have consistently been supportive of refugees around the world. But in this particular case I think it’s—we have to be careful that the process of filtering these folks out includes this new threat that I’ve never heard existed before.

HIATT: I think we can all agree with Elisa. This has been a very substantive conversation; probably not good for your ratings, Richard. (Laughter.) But thank you very much. (Applause.)

BUSH: I didn’t insult anybody? You have ratings? (Laughter.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

"Energy security with North American resources in short order is possible if we were serious about making this the highest priority. Imagine a country that had the lowest-cost energy sources in the world with Canada, Mexico, and the United States. We could use energy as a foreign policy tool, but we also could reindustrialize our own country, giving people confidence that wages would begin to grow."
- Jeb Bush
"We need to embed our troops with the Iraqi military. There’s a great resistance in this administration. That needs to be done. We need to arm the Kurds directly, in my mind. There’s some discussion about why that’s important. I think we need to show support directly for the Kurds. But more important the weapon—the caliber of the support that we give needs to be significantly upgraded."
- Jeb Bush
"The disaffection that people feel is real. We have not made the transition to the 21st century, nor have many of the other countries of the developed world. And the strains you’re seeing play out because people are deeply disaffected and they don’t believe the institutions work for them, and so they don’t necessarily default to the premise that America’s leadership is of benefit to them."
- Jeb Bush
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