Jeb Bush, hoping to polish his foreign policy credentials before he formally announces a White House bid, launched a three-nation trip to Europe on Tuesday by lauding his father’s role in the unification of Germany after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
“The unification, as you all know, was not inevitable,” the former Republican governor of Florida told more than 2,000 people at a major economic conference here. “Many doubted it.”
With his father’s support, “Germany is whole and Germany is free,” Bush said as the crowd heartily applauded.
He didn’t mention his older brother, former President George W. Bush, in a 30-minute speech.
FOR THE RECORD
June 9, 8:07 p.m.: An earlier version of this article referred to former President George W. Bush as Jeb Bush's younger brother. He is older.
The disparate treatment is a reflection of the political thicket Bush faces as he prepares to kick off his campaign Monday. Whereas his father, George H.W. Bush, and his one-term presidency are remembered fondly, his brother was deeply unpopular in much of Europe, as well as at home, by the time he left office in 2009.
Bush’s speech at Wirtschaftsrat, the annual conference of the Economic Council of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, was his first public event on a five-day trip to Germany, Poland and Estonia. He used it to stake out a muscular foreign policy well within mainstream Republican views.
Bush called for an aggressive stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin and took aim at the Obama administration’s foreign and fiscal policies, even as he in effect embraced some of them.
“We’re beginning to realize the reset button didn’t turn out so hot,” Bush said, referring to the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s proposed “reset” of diplomatic relations with Moscow in 2009. Putin was then prime minister under Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Relations have soured steadily since Putin, who had previously served as president, was reelected in 2012. Russian military forces have backed pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Putin’s policies are stoking concern in Eastern Europe that he may try to go further.
But Bush was careful to avoid suggesting that the United States should intervene unilaterally, saying the responsibility for regional defense lies with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a policy that the White House has endorsed. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but Poland and Estonia are.
Putin, Bush said, “will push until someone pushes back, and I believe that is NATO’s responsibility.”
President Obama and the leaders of six other major industrialized countries agreed Monday to toughen sanctions on Russia, if necessary, to press for a political solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
At the G-7 summit in southern Germany, the leaders said sanctions will remain in place until Russia helps to fully implement a peace plan reached in February in Minsk, Belarus.
Bush appeared to blame the White House for congressionally mandated budget cuts that affect every department, including the Pentagon. He said the cutbacks have led to the perception of a void in hot spots around the world, allowing for Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, among other crises.
Turning to domestic issues, Bush said the United States ought to learn from Germany’s fiscal discipline as it emerged from the global recession after 2009. Germany has the largest and arguably strongest economy in Europe.
“Endless borrowing is always an invitation to trouble,” he said. “Anyone can talk a good game on fiscal discipline, but to actually apply fiscal discipline as Germany has done, that takes wisdom and it takes political courage.”
Bush also acknowledged a drama underway back home in Miami, where his campaign confirmed a leadership shake-up on Monday. Staffing changes are not uncommon in a presidential campaign, but they are rare a week before the candidate formally announces. Bush joked that he had not been informed about the shift.
“I don’t know about the change in the campaign team, but I’ll find out about that, I guess, when I get back home,” he said.
Bush expressed his support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union. Supporters say the deal would produce economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic, but opponents warn that it would hurt unions and make it more difficult for governments to regulate markets.
Bush also expressed regret for the damage to U.S. relations with Germany after renegade National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents in 2013 showing that the NSA had secretly eavesdropped on Merkel’s cellphone. The disclosures prompted a public outcry in Germany, and White House officials have said Obama ordered the surveillance to be ended.
After Bush finished speaking, he was greeted by Merkel as she entered the hotel ballroom. The two are not formally meeting, a reflection of Merkel’s preference to not appear with U.S. presidential candidates before they become party nominees.
Bush met earlier in the day with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to meet Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and participate in a private roundtable discussion with political and business leaders at Atlantik-Bruecke, a nonprofit organization aimed at fostering transatlantic relations.
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