Eyeing 2016, Jeb Bush criticizes Obama and pushes muscular foreign policy

Economic Indicators Associated Press

Nearing a decision on a presidential run in 2016, Jeb Bush on Tuesday reaffirmed his support for the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and pushed for a foreign policy that he said could help repair the nation's credibility after Barack Obama's presidency.

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"Our allies don't trust us and our enemies don't fear us. There is no situation worse for stability and peace than that," the former Florida governor told the annual luncheon of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. "The iron rule of superpower deterrent is 'Mean it when you say it.' And it has been broken by this president."

As an example, Bush cited Obama's decision not to follow through on his statements that there would be consequences for Syria if that country used chemical weapons. To date, the U.S. has not taken any direct military action against the government of Bashar Assad.

"Words matter," Bush said. "Presidents need to set United States aspirations and intentions where there is little gap between words and deeds."

On Monday, Bush told business leaders in Washington that he would decide "in short order" whether to launch a presidential bid. Establishment Republicans and big-money donors see a pragmatic governor who won two terms in the nation's largest swing state in part by appealing to Florida's fast-growing Hispanic population. Conservatives see Bush, the son and brother of presidents, as too moderate on immigration and other issues important to them.

Bush aimed to burnish his foreign policy credentials Tuesday while also solidifying his connection to Florida's powerful Cuban exile community. He did so primarily, for the second day in a row, by offering harsh words about the Obama administration.

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He said Obama played politics with his foreign policy, setting artificial timelines for troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan that ultimately hurt U.S. standing in the Middle East and emboldened enemies such as Islamic State militants. Left unmentioned was Obama's recent decision to send 3,000 troops back to Iraq as trainers and advisers and an aggressive air campaign against IS.

Bush emphasized American exceptionalism and called on the country to play a more robust role on the world stage. He said the United States should strengthen its military and bolster its alliances with Canada, Mexico and Israel while building coalitions with Latin America.

"The United States needs to lead. Lead with humility, lead with respect — but lead," Bush said. "We are not an equal partner in a so-called community of nations. We are a leader among equals."

His remarks Tuesday also drew distinct differences between himself and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state and the leading Democrat for her party's presidential nomination, should she decide to seek it.

Bush not only reaffirmed his support for the U.S. trade embargo, but said America should consider strengthening it. Without naming her, he criticized efforts by Clinton and others to lift the sanctions.

Clinton, who backed the trade limits when she ran for president in 2008, reversed her position this year and now describes the embargo as "Castro's best friend," arguing that the regime uses it as a scapegoat for the island's problems.

Bush said the embargo should remain until the Castro regime is driven from power, or releases its political prisoners and holds free elections. He also pledged his support for the event's host, the U.S-Cuba Democracy PAC, one of the policy's staunchest defenders.

"I am honored to be a soldier in your army," he told the crowd in Spanish.

Some of Florida's most prominent Cuban-American leaders lauded him, citing his tenure overseeing a diverse state that has often served as safe harbor for refugees from across Latin America.

"Jeb knows the world," said former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

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Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.

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Follow Michael J. Mishak on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mjmishak