During a campaign stop in Rock Hill on Tuesday, Jeb Bush sought to sharpen his stance on how America should respond to foreign threats.
In contrast with President Obama’s foreign policy, and paraphrasing former President Teddy Roosevelt, Bush summed up his approach to foreign and defense policy for the crowd at Winthrop University: “talk less and carry a big stick.”
Bush used some tough talk that drew applause from those gathered for a “national security forum” at the DiGiorgio Campus Center. But the GOP presidential hopeful and former Florida governor also delved into policy specifics on many fronts, producing an event that was less “red meat” politicking than substantive discussion.
The forum was sponsored by the group Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security and was moderated by former CNN and ABC News reporter Jeanne Meserve, who asked Bush questions of her own as well as those submitted by the audience.
“It’s not bellicose to say what we’re going to do if someone threatens our friends,” Bush said. “It’s more dangerous for the U.S. to withdraw from the world.”
Bush cited provocative action by Russia, from the ongoing war in Ukraine to cyberattacks in the Baltics and Russian fighter jets intruding into European airspace. He called on America’s NATO allies to take on a more serious defensive posture, and pledged as president to directly arm Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed rebels.
Elsewhere, Bush added, in a swipe at an opponent, “It’s a more dangerous world than when Obama was elected president and Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.”
One area where Bush took a tougher stance was on the president’s nuclear agreement with Iran, which he called on Congress to vote down by a veto-proof majority. He said the administration, backed by the sanctions he credits with weakening Iran so far, would be able to negotiate the deal that’s closer to “what it should have looked like.”
But later, Bush also said he wants to strengthen the verification process in the current Iran deal.
“When (Iranians) chant ‘death to America’ and ‘death to Israel’ in the street, I take them at their word that they’re serious,” Bush said. “At a minimum, the next president needs to be vigilant and use every tool at their disposal.”
National security touches on domestic issues, too. Bush told the crowd he wants to see the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program – revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks and recently curtailed by Congress – be restored, arguing the information gathered by the program is essential for America’s national security.
“Is there any evidence that someone’s civil liberties have been violated?” Bush said. “I haven’t found one.”
Privacy protections should be in place, but without the ability to store the data pulled from Americans’ digital communications, Bush fears the federal government won’t have enough information to pursue a suspected terrorist.
“The next time something bad happens, you know we’ll have congressional investigations into why we did this and that,” he said. “Why not be proactive?”
After the forum, Bush shook hands and posed for pictures with members of the audience, even taking a cell phone to speak to a young woman’s fiancé.
Peri Imler was impressed with Bush’s answer to a question about satellite warfare and how electronic pulses could impact the nation’s power grid.
“He admitted he didn’t know everything and was still learning about it,” Imler said. “As a college student, it’s always good to hear someone admit they’re still learning.”
A history student at Presbyterian College, Imler said she’s been a follower of presidential politics “since I was 8 years old,” and wants to see more young people get involved with the political process.
“As a history major, it’s interesting to see how the issues change over time,” she said. “The issues this time are different from what they were even in 2012, which were different from what they were in 2008.”
Bush’s toughest comments were directed at the Islamic State, or ISIS, battling U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. He said America has to show it’s in the fight “for the long haul,” and took a swipe at language Obama once used to dismiss the threat posed by the group.
“ISIS has to be a high priority,” Bush said. “You can’t just say they’re the JV team and leave it at that.”
He wants to see multiple “safe zones” established in Syria, enforced by U.S. aircraft, that will allow anti-ISIS forces to operate in the country. But Bush hedged when Meserve asked if such a high priority meant American boots would be put on the ground in the Middle East. Bush said those decisions have to be guided by the country’s national security interests.
“The president can’t just follow what’s popular,” he said.