WASHINGTON -- GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush on Tuesday accused President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of failing to stop the rise of the Islamic State and advocated a bigger military presence in Iraq and Syria.
In an address at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, he claimed that Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was the “fatal error” that facilitated the formation of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
“That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill -- and that Iran has exploited to the full as well,” he said.
He also used the opportunity to pin the blame on Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state during Obama’s first term.
“Where was the secretary of state in all of this? In all her record-setting travels, she stopped by Iraq exactly once,” he said. “Who can seriously argue that America and our friends are safer today than in 2009, when the president and Secretary Clinton -- the storied ‘team of rivals’ -- took office? So eager to be the history-makers, they failed to be the peacemakers.”
Bush used much of the speech to warn of what he called the growing ISIS “pandemic,” and laid out a foreign policy agenda that included a greater military presence in Iraq, as opposed to the Obama administration’s “minimalist approach of incremental escalation.”
“A winning strategy depends on maintaining unequal [military] strength, and we must not take that for granted,” he said.
His specific foreign policy agenda included more American engagement with the Iraqi security forces fighting ISIS, more assistance to the Kurds and more airstrikes, with “spotters” placed on the ground to improve the tracking of ISIS fighters.
Bush stopped short of calling for more ground troops but hinted at the possibility.
“But we do need to convey that we are serious, that we are determined to help local forces take back their country,” he said. "Our unrivaled warfighters know that it is simply not enough to dispense advice and training to local forces, then send them on their way and hope for the best.”
Bush called for a coordinated international force in Syria to stop President Bashar Assad's regime's "bombing raids that kill helpless civilians." That effort, he said, would involve instituting a no-fly zone as well as "multiple" safe zones within the country's borders.
As part of his plan to take on the Islamic State more directly, Bush held up the Iraq War troop surge under his brother's presidency as an example of what was possible in the neighboring country.
"It’s a tough, complicated diplomatic and military proposition, even more so than the current situation in Iraq. But it can be done," he said. "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."
Bush also called on Congress to reject Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. He warned that if Congress does authorize the deal, he would undo it “immediately” if elected president.
Jake Sullivan, a senior foreign policy adviser to Clinton's campaign and a former State Department official, called Bush's speech "a pretty bold attempt to rewrite history and reassign responsibility."
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Sullivan sought to rebut the notion that the Obama administration was to blame for the rise of the Islamic State. He argued instead that the world owed the group's inception to George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in the first place.
"It is simply wrong to assert that ISIS arose in the vacuum after American troops left," Sullivan said. "ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq. And where did AQI come from? It didn't exist before the invasion. It emerged in no small part as a result of President’s Bush's failed strategy."
Throughout his campaign, Bush has faced difficulty in distancing himself from his brother’s divisive foreign policy decisions, chiefly the authorization of the Iraq War. The Bush administration’s foreign policy arguably created much of the instability that led to the formation of ISIS, particularly its ill-advised and hastily planned decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003, which created a fractured state and led former Sunni members of the Iraqi military to form insurgent groups that would later coalesce to form ISIS.
On Tuesday, Bush again seemed to walk a fine line, acknowledging the “failures of intelligence” in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and being careful not to dwell on the past.
“No leader or policymaker involved will claim to have gotten everything right in the region, Iraq especially,” Bush said, before praising his brother's administration’s troop surge, which he argued “turned events toward victory."