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Jeb Bush Offers His Prescription For Iraq


Jeb Bush delivered a foreign policy speech this week at the Reagan Presidential Library. He made proposals to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State. It was the first such detailed plan offered by any of the Republican presidential contenders. As NPR's David Welna reports, Mr. Bush criticized the Obama administration's year-long efforts against ISIS.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Jeb Bush had grim tidings for his fellow Republicans at the Reagan Library. Radical Islam, he warned, is spreading like a pandemic throughout the Middle East and Africa. And the Obama administration, he said, has no strategy to stop it.


JEB BUSH: A year of limited strikes and other half measures has made little discernible difference in the sum total of the ISIS danger.

WELNA: There was nary a word about Bush's brother, George, having started the ongoing war in Iraq. Bush said only that no leader would claim to have gotten everything right in the region, especially in Iraq, due to what he called failures of intelligence and military setbacks. Instead, Bush offered his prescription for getting it right this time in Iraq.


BUSH: First, we must support the Iraqi forces, which right now have the will to win but not the means.

WELNA: Over the past year, U.S. policy has been to train and equip Iraqi forces. Those involved in that effort say the problem actually is those troops' will to win. Here's Defense Secretary Ash Carter on CNN after Iraqi troops were routed by ISIS in Ramadi.


ASH CARTER: We have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.

WELNA: As for the U.S. air war in Iraq, Bush said it would be more effective if U.S. spotters were deployed there to call in airstrikes.


BUSH: ISIS fighters try blending into the civilian landscape. Our spotters on the ground will enable us to hit them hard and rarely miss.

WELNA: But the Pentagon has refrained from using such spotters, known in military jargon as JTACS. In an appearance before Congress last month, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey downplayed the need for them.


MARTIN DEMPSEY: The JTACS and the special force observers are not a silver bullet to the destruction of ISIL. The silver bullet is getting the Iraqis to fight.

WELNA: That was in keeping with the promise President Obama made when he first announced U.S. airstrikes in Iraq a year ago.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.

WELNA: Bush, in his speech, made no such promise. He said while a major commitment of American combat forces is not needed in Iraq, Canada has already embedded some of its troops with Iraqi units.


BUSH: Our soldiers and Marines need the go-ahead to do that as well.

WELNA: A nationwide poll done last month by the Pew Research Center found nearly two-thirds of Republicans favor sending in such ground troops. An equal share of Democrats oppose doing so. Bush did not recommend U.S. ground troops for fighting in Syria. Instead, he proposed drawing moderates there together into a single fighting force.


BUSH: We saw, in the Iraq surge, how Islamic moderates can be pulled away from extremist forces.

WELNA: Bush was referring to the U.S. troop surge his brother George ordered in Iraq eight years ago, in which Sunni tribes were persuaded to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. George Washington University's Stephen Biddle took part in that effort as an adviser. He says Syria's brutal political history discourages joint endeavors.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: The winner takes all, and the second-place finisher gets killed. And, yeah, the Americans want us all to cooperate, but this guy the Americans want me to cooperate with might very well hang me.

WELNA: And even though a fledgling U.S. effort in Syria to recruit and train forces to fight the Islamic State has found few takers, Bush called for that program to expand. He also praised recent U.S. efforts to create a safe zone along Syria's border with Turkey.


BUSH: That's good news, but we need to go beyond - well beyond that by establishing safe zones to protect Syrians not only from ISIS but also from Assad.

WELNA: Bush also called for Syrian Prime Minister Bashar Assad's defeat, a goal the U.S. has yet to adopt. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.