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Jeb Bush's anti-Putin speech in Berlin is a strategic and political blunder

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a dinner during the Republican National Committee Spring Meeting at the Phoenician May 14, 2015, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a dinner during the Republican National Committee Spring Meeting at the Phoenician May 14, 2015, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Laura Segall/Getty Images

I happened to arrive in Berlin a few days before Jeb Bush, who is visiting the German capital today for a big anti-Putin speech. The governor did not see fit to recruit me into his advance team. But if he had, I would've called the home office to strongly urge that he cancel, for the good of both his political campaign and American strategic interests in Europe.

Having Jeb Bush come to Berlin to argue on behalf of US foreign policy in Europe is a bit like sending Edward Snowden to give a speech on NSA reform to the Republican National Committee. Bush has come up in nearly every conversation I've had here since arriving, and always with a warning: that skepticism of the US is already high here, that the German public's support of tough policies toward Russia is tenuous, and that the mere sight of a Bush makes Germans want to run in the opposite direction of US foreign policy.

Bush's speech is expected to offer some generic lines about how Russia's aggression in Ukraine is a serious threat to the European order and shouldn't go "unanswered," according to advance excerpts published by Josh Rogin. Bush, Rogin notes, has in the past supported providing arms to Ukraine — something that even Germany's hawkish leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, opposes.

Bush is correct that Russia's aggression poses a threat to Europe, and he is correct to identify Germany as the most important audience for that argument: the Germans have become Europe's decision-maker on matters of Ukraine and Russia. But coming to Berlin for a big speech, and putting the Bush family name on this policy, seems almost certain to backfire. What Bush may not realize is that German support for US policies toward Russia is precarious and polarized, and his voice is likely to deepen German polarization against the US and against hard-line Russia policies.

Jeb Bush is extremely unpopular in Germany, where only 7 percent see him in a positive light, according to a recent YouGov poll, with 27 percent negative. His last name is deeply intertwined with a popular opposition to US foreign policy that, to my surprise, Germans themselves have frequently characterized to me as "anti-Americanism." When Germans express skepticism toward Merkel's hardline policies on Russia and Ukraine, they often do so by suggesting those policies are being pushed by the Americans, and raising the much-loathed 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The very worst person to convince them to stay the course on Russia, then, is anyone named Bush.

Since the Ukraine crisis began, the German public has swayed based on whom they despise more at that moment: Russia or the US. The country has an ugly history but close business and political ties with Russia. Early in the crisis, two former chancellors, Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, expressed sympathy for Russia's position. Newspapers and government officials that supported Merkel's hard line on Russia were besieged by angry readers and constituents.

While many Germans changed their minds after Russian-backed separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last year, this was driven primarily by anger at Russia. Skepticism toward the US and its policies remains. In May, Clemens Wergin, the foreign editor of German newspaper Die Welt, warned in a column for the New York Times, "German society may well be drifting away from the West again." Growing anti-Americanism and sympathy for Russia, he wrote, "is placing constraints on how aggressively the government of Angela Merkel ... can act against Russia."

Putting Bush's face on hard-line Russia and Ukraine policies, then, seems destined to make them less popular and more polarizing here. His support is a poison pill. That alone is unlikely to prove anywhere near decisive, of course — Jeb Bush is wisely keeping a low-ish profile — but it's not going to help, and German public opinion is already tenuous and sure to become more so as the Ukraine crisis continues.

Given that Germany's support is central to US strategy on Ukraine, and that in the longer term Germany is becoming the key American ally checking against Russian aggression, Bush's decision to speak here will weaken that cause. It is unhelpful and speaks poorly of his foreign policy.

It's not great politics for him, either. American voters are not going to decide Bush's fate based on his reception in Berlin, of course. But he already has a problem of being associated with his unpopular brother, particularly on foreign policy. Seeing Jeb get a chilly reception abroad could bring back memories for Americans of the global backlash from George W.'s 2003 Iraq invasion, heightening already problematic comparisons to his brother.

Later in the week, Bush will also speak in Poland and Estonia, two NATO members that are much more confident and unified in their anti-Russia and pro-America stances. Bush's trips to their capitals are both strategically and politically sound. He is far less controversial in those countries, and far more welcome as a show of US resolve in their defense against Russia. Visiting Poland and Estonia is a smart move for Bush. Visiting Berlin is not.

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