Declaring "I am my own man," Jeb Bush sought Wednesday to distance himself from former President George W. Bush while sharply criticizing President Barack Obama's foreign policy as "inconsistent and indecisive."
But as he attempted that balance, Bush's forceful outlook aligned him closely with his brother at the same time the likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate has surrounded himself with architects of his brother's policies, including former deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
The address sidestepped the deeply unpopular Iraq war begun by the second Bush president. Yet during a question-and-answer period the former Florida governor conceded "there were mistakes in Iraq, for sure," citing bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and insufficient security after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He quickly credited his brother for the troop surge, deeming it a "heroic act of courage."
"Weakness invites war," Bush said before a crowd of nearly 900 at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "Strength encourages peace."
Though Obama has angered his liberal base with drone strikes and other uses of force, Republicans cast him as too cautious and not strong enough with Iran and Russia, and in other hot spots. Bush on Wednesday stepped firmly into that camp.
"I have doubts whether this administration believes American power is such a force," Bush said. "Under this administration, we are inconsistent and indecisive. We have lost the trust and the confidence of our friends. We definitely no longer inspire fear in our enemies."
To stress his foreign policy experience, Bush noted his time living in Venezuela as a young businessman and his work on a trade agreement between Florida and Israel. He noted that he has visited Israel five times. His speech delivery was shaky, similar to his performance two weeks ago in Detroit, but Bush was confident and knowledgeable during the question-and-answer session. He got laughs, too.
"Holy Schnikes," the 62-year-old declared at one point, using a phrase made popular by the now-deceased comedian Chris Farley, when describing the complexity of global affairs.
At one point, a woman in the audience challenged Bush's criticism of Obama's attempt to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. "Why not have the courage to say this has been a failed policy for over half a century?" she asked.
Bush said it was important to engage with Cuba but complained that the United States got "nothing" in return for opening up travel and other ties to Cuba, moves he said would line the pockets of the government there.
"The notion that somehow you're going to have freedom break out in Cuba, I think is false," he said.
His speech did not lay out many specifics, though Bush did call for tougher sanctions against Russia, which has flexed muscle in Ukraine. He also said the United States needs to be all-in on the fight with Islamic State militants. "Restrain them, tighten the noose and then take them out," he said.
He faulted Obama for setting "red lines" over the use of force against Syria but then changing course, though public opinion was against military engagement. And Bush defended the controversial mass data collection programs of the National Security Agency, saying "this is a hugely important program to use these technologies to keep us safe."
Remarks about his brother and father drew the most attention.
"I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make," Bush said. "But I am my own man, and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experience. Each president learns from those who came before — their principles, their adjustments. One thing we know is this: Every president inherits a changing world and changing circumstances."
Even so, the comparisons will not be easy to avoid and Bush only reaffirmed them Wednesday when his Right to Rise political committee released the names of foreign policy advisers that have ties to the past administrations.
They include Wolfowitz; James Baker, an adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; former Secretaries of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff; Stephen Hadley, a deputy national security adviser for George W. Bush; and John Hannah, national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Democrats seized on the disconnect between Bush's words and his growing team of Bush family alumni.
A tougher foreign policy puts Bush in line with most other Republican presidential hopefuls, save for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose libertarian views call for more focus on domestic affairs. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found that "the percentage of Americans mentioning terrorism as the most important problem facing the U.S. is at its highest level since January 2010, at 8 percent. Government dissatisfaction and the economy are still the top overall problems."
Bush tied U.S. strength to the economy and made another pitch for immigration reform as a way to fill jobs.
While in Chicago he also was fundraising and was expected to raise several million dollars that is part of a strategy that borrows from war terminology — "shock and awe."