On overseas tour, Jeb Bush hopes to prove himself on foreign policy

Jeb Bush heads overseas this week to prove his foreign policy credentials

World affairs are constants in Jeb Bush's life.

He met his wife while a teenager studying in Mexico, majored in Latin American affairs in college and lived in Venezuela as a young businessman. He speaks fluent Spanish.

He had a front-row seat to the presidencies of his brother and his father during times of great overseas triumph and tribulation.

Bush, 62, spent the bulk of his adult life in south Florida, one of the most multicultural places in the nation. As governor of Florida, he led more than a dozen international missions, and he has visited 29 countries since then.

But Bush still feels compelled to embark on a modern-day rite of passage for presidential candidates — an overseas tour to showcase his statesmanship and burnish his foreign policy credentials. This week, he will take a whirlwind spin through the capitals of Germany, Poland and Estonia before officially kicking off his White House bid on June 15.

The trip is a nod to the dominant role foreign policy is expected to play in the 2016 presidential campaign — one of Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton's top credentials is her tenure as the nation's top diplomat. Voters, increasingly alarmed by developments overseas such as Islamic State's brutality and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, are expected to prioritize foreign policy experience as they select the next president.

A foreign trip offers candidates upsides: a chance to be seen as a strong, capable leader on the world stage addressing issues vital to the nation's interests. But as some of Bush's Republican rivals can attest, any error could be magnified.

Bush faces an additional, unique test — differentiating his views from the foreign policies of his father, President George H.W. Bush, and his brother, President George W. Bush. The former governor has yet to articulate an agenda, but he frequently seeks to distinguish himself from the two presidents.

"Just for the record, one more time: I love my brother, I love my dad," Bush said during a foreign policy speech in February in Chicago. "And I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions that they had to make. But I'm my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and my own experiences."

Bush noted how much the world had changed since his father formed a coalition to fight the Gulf War in 1991 and his brother invaded Iraq in 2003. Then he emphasized: "New circumstances require new approaches."

For a candidate whose biggest campaign stumble to date was his difficulty answering a question about the war his brother started, it's a recognition that his familial ties cut both ways.

The shadows of the two elder Bushes loom large in the nations the former governor is visiting.

In Germany, for example, President George H.W. Bush is remembered fondly for his role in the negotiations for German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, said Kori Schake, who was a senior foreign policy aide in President George W. Bush's administration.

But George W. Bush's policies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, such as the preemptive use of military force, prompted hand-wringing among Germans, she said.

"They thought they knew us," Schake said. "Our reaction after 9/11 scared them."

Bush will spend much of his five-day trip meeting privately with government, business and civic leaders in Berlin, Warsaw and Tallinn, Estonia, about the economy, transatlantic relations and security. Public events include a Tuesday speech at a major economic conference in Berlin alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

The former governor is expected to be asked about Russian aggression in Ukraine, and whether the United States has been a strong enough ally in the region. NATO, of which the United States is a member, is being urged to more forcefully confront Russian President Vladimir Putin by permanently stationing troops in Poland and the Baltic nations.

He could face questions about the CIA torture report, made public in 2014, that confirmed the existence of a secret interrogation site in Poland during his brother's administration, and President Obama's decision to scale back George W. Bush-era plans to build a missile-defense site in Poland.

Policy experts said Bush's challenge would be to showcase his views without explicitly attacking Obama on foreign soil.

"Obviously you want to demonstrate how you'll be able to contrast your foreign policy if you're president.... But at the same time, you have to do it delicately," said Lanhee Chen, a top advisor to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "Foreign policy and national security are going to be a huge part of this campaign, and they're going to be a huge part of how Republican candidates contrast themselves with the current administration … and also potentially with other Republican candidates."

Such overseas journeys have repeatedly proved perilous for American politicians.

Romney's foreign trip in the summer before the 2012 election was dominated by missteps. In Britain, he offended many when he questioned London's readiness to host the Summer Olympics shortly before the Games' opening ceremony. In Jerusalem, he suggested that "culture" was responsible for economic disparities between Israel and neighboring Palestinian areas.

"I don't think it was a defining moment during the campaign, but at that point of the campaign, you can't afford to lose many news cycles, and we lost a couple," said Kevin Madden, a Romney advisor who faulted the campaign for failing to craft an overarching thematic narrative for the trip. In the absence of such messaging, Romney's missteps were exaggerated, he said.

This year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie flubbed a response when asked about mandatory childhood vaccinations while in London; he appeared to side with those who oppose vaccinations. At the same time, reports emerged about lavish trips he took that were funded by wealthy benefactors.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in February took flack for dodging questions about his views on foreign policy and creationism at a prominent think tank in London.

Bush's life experiences, some argue, inoculate him from such blunders.

"So many of our GOP presidential candidates are using flash cards to try to memorize the different world leaders, and they're traveling overseas to prove they can remember the name of a leader or a group," said Richard Grenell, who served as the U.S. spokesman at the United Nations under President George W. Bush and is not aligned with any candidate. "This isn't an educational trip for Jeb Bush."

But others wonder about the wisdom of making such a venture.

"The upside is limited but obvious and that is you get your picture taken with the queen of Siam or wherever you're going," said Rich Galen, a veteran GOP operative who worked for former Vice President Dan Quayle and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "The downside, as Scott Walker found out, is that if you do one of these foreign trips — especially now — you damn well better know what the hell you're talking about."

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATSeema

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