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Jeb Bush's vacuous foreign policy speech was the perfect match for today's GOP

Jeb Bush answers questions about his Chicago Council speech.
Jeb Bush answers questions about his Chicago Council speech.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Jeb Bush made his foreign policy debut in a Wednesday speech, to mixed reviews. The speech's delivery was awkward, peppered with cringeworthy mispronunciations and malapropisms. Substantively, it was a mixed bag; some sympathetic observers liked the core message of American strength, while others saw him as totally out of step with the GOP.

But for all the speech tells us about Bush — a look at what he said, what he didn't say and the criticism of both — speaks to something much larger: where the Republican Party stands on foreign policy in an age when Americans are glad to see the end of two wars, but are still anxious about the threat posed by groups like ISIS and rogue actors like Vladimir Putin's Russia.

It's a moment where the party is trying to move on from George W. Bush's unpopular wars, but also clearly oppose Barack Obama's more laissez-faire approach to world politics. The result so far has been to tack to Obama's hawkish right, but to do so without a clear set of alternative policies or a defining vision. And you could see it in Bush's speech.

Bush's nonexistent foreign policy vision

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush speaks at the Reagan Library. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News)

In the speech, Bush defined his foreign policy by six principles. They're all so general as to be essentially banal. It'd be impossible for any mainstream Republican to disagree, but it's equally impossible to figure out how he'd govern by looking at them.

"First, American can't be a force for peace and security in the world if our economy does not grow," Bush said. This isn't actually a foreign policy vision, so much as it is an excuse to talk about entitlements and the tax code in a foreign policy speech.

Two of the other principles — America should embrace its allies and backup its words with action — are generic Obama-bashing lines. Republicans believe Obama is turning his back on American allies like Israel, and unwilling to back up his words with force (i.e., the Syrian chemical weapons red line). Reiterating those criticisms is fine, but it's not the same thing as an actual explanation of how Jeb would approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Syrian civil war.

Another principle, American "military power must be rebuilt," amounts to a call for a hike in defense spending. Congress slashed Pentagon funds across-the-board as part of "sequester cuts" at the heart of a 2011 spending deal. Barack Obama recently called for an end to the sequester, including on the domestic side. But what Jeb is calling for here is more in line with what many Republicans wanted  -- to reinstate defense spending, but not necessarily other spending. Big picture, defense spending has been a major Republican policy priority for decades.

A fifth principle, "we must be prepared to address the new asymmetric, non-state sponsored threat," just means Bush thinks ISIS and al-Qaeda are bad and should be fought. He didn't elaborate on how they ought be fought. Jeb did say that the NSA metadata surveillance was "a hugely important program" in this fight, but that's less more of a giant flag saying "I am not Rand Paul!" than a counterterrorism vision.

Finally, Bush argued, "our foreign policy must be rooted in a critical principle: let's call it liberty diplomacy." At time of publication, it's been over 24 hours since Bush delivered the speech, and it's still unclear what "liberty diplomacy" actually means.

If this all sounds harsh — it should, a little. Foreign policy is the area in which the president has the most unilateral power; if he wants to make a serious case that he should be president, Bush will one day need to give a much more specific outline of his worldview.

But as an act of political rhetoric — which is really what it is — the speech wasn't half bad. As expected, this rhetoric puts Bush squarely within the center of the GOP foreign policy consensus. Bush will have plenty of time over the course of the campaign to develop a more concrete foreign policy doctrine: for now, he just needs to signal that he's "one of us" to the dominant hawkish wing of the GOP.

This speech did the trick. He attacked Obama for not doing enough globally. Language like "the United States has an undiminished ability to shape events and build alliances of free people" committed Bush to a fairly expansive vision of America's role in the world. And his deft handling of moderator and audience questions during the post-speech Q&A shows that he'd be basically capable of developing and defending a more concrete foreign policy down the line.

So though Bush didn't really give a speech on foreign policy, he still checked all of the political boxes a Republican primary candidate would like to in a foreign policy speech.

Bush's speech is really about the GOP's lack of foreign policy definition

rand paul john mccain

Rand Paul (L) and John McCain (R) are somehow in the same party. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

What's really interesting about Bush's speech is that it could be politically effective without actually outlining a specific policy vision. Why might that be?

The answer has more to do with the Republican Party's "TBA" approach to world politics than Jeb Bush's personally.

For about the past three decades, the GOP has consistently been the more muscular of the two major parties. George W. Bush pushed this approach to its limit, both by launching the Iraq war and through an aggressive, arguably counterproductive democracy promotion policy. But since Bush's term ended in disaster, the party has yet to develop a unified, coherent alternative approach to world affairs.

Throughout the Obama administration, mainstream Republican thinking on foreign policy has mostly been defined by hawkish opposition to Obama. Sometimes, that's "the opposite of Obama" — no to a nuclear deal with Iran and the climate change agreement with China, for example. In other cases, that's "more than Obama" — provide more aid to Ukraine or Syrian rebels, commit more US forces to or Libya or Iraq.

Mostly reacting to the president's foreign policy is pretty normal for an opposition party. And conservative foreign policy wonks have plenty of policy proposals they'd like to put into practice. But so far, it's not obvious what ideas represent the party as a whole.

What's the conservative approach to China or the Eurozone crisis? How much should the US arm the Syrian rebels, and should it commit ground troops to the ISIS war? If the nuclear deal with Iran on the table is bad, and more sanctions don't shut down Iran's nuclear program, does the US need to bomb Iran?

The fact that Bush didn't provide answers to this kind of question, then, means he doesn't want to be taking the lead on defining the GOP's approach to foreign affairs just yet.

That's probably wise. Bush wants to run primarily on domestic policy. Speaking in conservative bromides signals that Bush is inside the party's mainstream on foreign affairs without committing him to specific, potentially controversial positions.

While Bush steps back, other Republican candidates will step up, trying to make foreign policy a core part of their primary appeal. More traditional Republicans like Marco Rubio will compete to offer the most compelling contrast with Rand Paul's libertarian non-interventionism. It's a critical debate for the Republican party — and one that Bush has just signaled he'll be sitting out.