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Jeb Bush's plan to fight ISIS, explained

Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images

Jeb Bush didn't mention his brother, George W. Bush, Tuesday night in his foreign policy speech. But he might as well have.

Jeb's speech is a reboot of his brother's neoconservative view of the world, albeit in a somewhat stripped-down form. He thinks American military power "won" the war in Iraq. The lesson we should learn, Bush suggests, is that a bigger US military commitment to the Middle East is the best way to solve its biggest problems.

The individual policies he proposed aren't all bad ideas, necessarily. His Iraq policy, on its own, amounts to a pretty defensible tweak to the existing American approach. But in Syria, Bush wants to carve out parts of the country as safe havens for US-backed rebels and impose a no-fly zone across the country — in the name of defeating both ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad's regime. This would be a significant escalation of President Obama's strategy in Syria, and in a worst-case outcome could draw the US into an open-ended military commitment there.

Bush learned all the wrong lessons from Iraq

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

A US soldier with an Iraqi child in Baghdad, 2008. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

The warning bell early in the speech is Bush's discussion of the Iraq War. As far as he tells it, America basically won — until Barack Obama came in and ruined everything. This isn't just false (though it is). It also reveals that he hasn't given up the rosy appraisal of American military power that helped make things so bad in Iraq in the first place.

The chaos after the US invasion didn't get much attention in Bush's speech. The closest we get is a vague reference to America's "long experience [in Iraq] that includes failures of intelligence and military setbacks," and a warning that "rushing away from danger can be every bit as unwise as rushing into danger."

Instead, we get a narrative of glorious American victory. "One moment stands out in memory as the turning point," Bush says. "That was the surge of military and diplomatic operations that turned events toward victory. It was a success, brilliant, heroic, and costly."

And everything was fine — until Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. "Why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal?" Bush wonders. "That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill."

This is a fantasy narrative of the Iraq War. The 2007 "surge" of American forces didn't "win" the Iraq War. America helped, to be sure. But the fundamental reason for al-Qaeda in Iraq's defeat was the decision of Iraqi Sunnis to turn against it and join the political process, fueled by fear that the Shia were winning the civil war as well as anger at al-Qaeda's vicious rule. Without this local movement, American troops would have been as unable to stop the fighting as they had been since 2003.

"I take the somewhat modest position that the action of 6 million Iraqis may be more important than those of 30,000 American troops and one very talented general," Douglas Ollivant, national security council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and author of a top-notch study on the surge, told me last year.

Nor was ISIS a product of the American withdrawal (which, incidentally, the Bush administration agreed to in the 2008 Status of Forces agreement). Obama deserves some blame for Iraq's descent into chaos, given America's political disengagement from the country. But ISIS rose principally by exploiting Sunni/Shia tensions and the Syrian civil war — neither of which really could have been solved by having more American troops in Iraq.

Taken together, these errors suggest Bush failed to learn the fundamental lesson of the Iraq War: The US military is a limited, dangerous tool. In Bush's worldview, the world is better when the US military acts, and worse when it doesn't. The idea that American force can backfire — for example, by sparking a sectarian civil war that helped give rise to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that would evolve into ISIS — is almost entirely absent from the speech.

Now, Bush isn't embracing the notion that the initial invasion of Iraq was a good idea. Rather, he's merely leaning hard into the idea that the surge, which Bush enacted in his second term, brought eventual victory. This suggests he's more interested in emulating his brother's second term Iraq policy than his first. That's an important distinction: George W. Bush's foreign policy was overall more restrained in his second term, suggesting that Jeb may not be on board with his brother's most grandiose first-term approach.

And yet, Jeb ends up at times sounding pretty similar to George W. during his first term. "What we are facing in ISIS and its ideology is, to borrow a phrase, the focus of evil in the modern world," Jeb said. "Instead of simply reacting to each new move the terrorists choose to make, we will use every advantage we have to take the offensive, to keep it, and to prevail."

The result: neoconservatism reborn in Syria

syrian rebel aleppo april (Ahmed Muhammed Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A rebel fighter in Aleppo. (Ahmed Muhammed Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Credit where it's due: Bush's speech is by far the most detailed Middle East address of the campaign so far. He committed, very clearly, to new policies for dealing with the ISIS crisis and the Syrian civil war.

In Iraq, his proposals essentially amount to tweaks on the existing Obama strategy. Bush wants the US to send more weapons to Kurds and certain friendly Sunni tribes, sure. And he would break with Obama by being more willing to send US troops into harm's way: Though he opposes sending large numbers of combat troops to Iraq, he would allow US forward air controllers and trainers to work with Iraqi troops on the front lines.

This is definitely more involved than what America is doing right now, but not overly so. It's mostly just a beefed-up version of US strategy: American airpower and trainers back Iraqi ground troops' efforts to roll back ISIS.

But in Syria, Bush calls for a significant escalation in US military involvement.

He recognizes, correctly, that Syria is a much tougher problem than Iraq: The multifaceted, complicated civil war has left America bereft of reliable partners on the ground. And he, like Obama, argues that Assad's regime is part of the problem that contributes to ISIS.

"Defeating ISIS requires defeating Assad," Bush says. "But we have to make sure that his regime is not replaced by something as bad or worse."

The Obama administration has also long said it considers Assad part of the problem, and that Assad must go. But whereas Obama only calls for Assad to step down, Bush says the entire Assad regime needs to come to an end. His plan is for moderate Syrian rebels to "form a stable, moderate government once ISIS is defeated and Assad is gone."

It's important to note that Bush never says the US should be the one to remove Assad, or even that US-backed moderate rebels would do this. So it's not clear if he would seek their removal by diplomacy (as Obama has done), by supporting moderate rebels to fight Assad, or rather if he merely believes that Assad's downfall is inevitable and wants rebels to be ready to step in when that happens.

Where Bush's strategy gets much more aggressive is his plan to establish "multiple safe zones in Syria," where civilians and moderate rebels would be protected from both ISIS and Assad regime forces. This would be a significant expansion of Obama's strategy, which is currently working with Turkey toward (but has not yet established) an "ISIS-free zone" in a part of Syria currently held by ISIS. Bush's plan would have more such safe zones, and would be explicitly about keeping out not just ISIS but Assad forces. (US troops are not involved in either plan.)

Expanding safe zones to keep out Assad regime forces is a significant escalation. The Obama administration, despite Turkish pressure, has not pledged to bomb any Assad troops that enter the "ISIS-free zone." That zone also includes no Assad-held territory, so it's not a threat to him. Bush's plan would keep out Assad's forces, and while he didn't demarcate specific borders, it certainly sounds like he could seek to carve out Assad-held territory as well. That really invites a confrontation between Assad and any US air forces defending those safe zones.

Protecting safe zones can be a major military challenge. "Safe zones" are magnets for enemy attacks: when they aren't robustly protected, they simply gather allies and civilians to be slaughtered. This happened in Bosnia in 1995, when the UN declared the town of Srebrenica a "safe zone" and failed to protect it, letting 8,000 people be slaughtered.

Establishing just one such safe zone in Syria, let alone "multiple," would take an extraordinary amount of force. Obama's plan to establish one in Syria with friendly, moderate rebels has so far not really gotten off the ground. Bush's plan would presumably require even more such rebels.

That gets to the next point on which Bush would escalate: He would impose a no-fly zone over part of Syria.

"Enforce that no-fly zone, and we'll stop the regime's bombing raids that kill helpless civilians," Bush said in his speech. "It could also keep Iranian flights from resupplying the regime, Hezbollah, and other bad actors. A no-fly zone is a critical strategic step to cut off Assad, counter Iranian influence, keep the pressure on for a settlement, and prevent more needless death in a country that has seen so much of it."

As is true of any candidate speech calling for a major new foreign policy initiative, Bush did not fill in all of the details. But some of those remaining details are quite important. What if the US no-fly zone comes under heavy attack from Syrian ground forces? How can Bush find enough moderate rebels to seize and defend multiple safe zones while fighting both Assad and ISIS, given that Obama has only found a few dozen? How can the US ensure that radicals like al-Qaeda don't dominate a post-Assad Syrian government? What if radicals come to take over the safe zones, or the safe zones are overrun by ISIS or Assad forces and the US can't stop them from the air?

Again, it's to be expected that a single candidate speech would not address all of this, but one hopes the Bush campaign will seek to fill out these details in the coming weeks.

Bush concluded by drawing again on his narrative of the US surge in Iraq as a wild success:

It's a tough, complicated diplomatic and military proposition, even more so than the current situation in Iraq. But it can be done. We saw in the Iraq surge how Islamic moderates can be pulled away from extremist forces. And the strategic elements in both cases are the same — we have to support local forces, and we must stay true to our word.

What is most troubling about Bush's Syria strategy, though, is not the analytically dubious parallels he draws with the Iraq surge, but rather the fact that when you look at all of the things he promises to accomplish, the only specific US commitment he makes to getting there is to deploy more US air power to the region. It all seems to suggest Bush holds faith in the transformative power of F-16 overflights.

This is a sort of diet neoconservatism: far less assertive about deploying US ground troops, yes, and Bush clearly goes out of his way not to champion the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he does champion his brother's second-term surge strategy in Iraq, and does seem to see US military power — even if it's only air power — as able to help solve what is perhaps the Middle East's worst and most intractable conflict.