In rare remarks, George W. Bush argues against the lifting of Iran sanctions

LAS VEGAS — Former President George W. Bush said the United States must show that it can follow through on its promises, and argued against the lifting of sanctions against Iran during rare remarks about foreign policy in a meeting with hundreds of Jewish donors here Saturday night.

Mr. Bush told the 700 donors attending a closed-door Republican Jewish Coalition spring meeting that he would not criticize President Obama, whose aim to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State he applauded. But the former president nevertheless offered comments that many in the audience viewed as a tacit critique of his successor.

Mr. Bush voiced skepticism about the Obama administration’s pursuit of anuclear deal with Iran. Although he had begun the diplomatic effort to press Iran to give up its nuclear program, Mr. Bush questioned whether it was wise to lift sanctions against Tehran when the Islamic government seemed to be caving in, and suggested that the United States risked losing leverage if it did so.

The former president, in an expansive mood, also offered his views on Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the joy his grandchild had brought him and the difficulty his younger brother Jeb would face as a 2016 presidential candidate because of his famous last name. The New York Times received accounts of the president’s remarks from a dozen people who attended the meeting.

Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq eventually became deeply unpopular, fueled President Obama’s 2008 candidacy and, according to his critics, prompted much of the chaos in the Middle East. But in his remarks, Mr. Bush appeared to remain convinced of the correctness of his approach and of the resoluteness he projected to the world.

At one point, he cited Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a possible presidential candidate, who has criticized Mr. Obama’s policies in the region. Mr. Bush quoted Mr. Graham as saying, “Pulling out of Iraq was a strategic blunder.”

While Mr. Bush told the group that he had changed course when warranted, he stressed that when leading America, “you gotta mean it” when talking tough, and that the nation’s allies and enemies needed to know where an American leader stood. Many attendees heard in those remarks a reference to Mr. Obama’s ultimately empty threat against Syria not to cross the red line of using chemical weapons.

Mr. Bush spoke in response to a question from his former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, about what he would do about the threat of the Islamic State, the changing alliances in the Middle East and the rise of Iran as a regional power.

The appearance was unusual for Mr. Bush, who has largely disappeared from politics since leaving office and whose endorsement of the Republican nominee in 2012 consisted of four words — “I’m for Mitt Romney” — in response to a reporter’s question as an elevator door closed. His comments on Saturday highlighted the fine line the former president must walk in maintaining respect for his successor, defending his own views and helping a brother who has alienated some pro-Israel Republicans as he readies his campaign for the White House.

The wealthy donors in the room could prove critical to that effort; the former president spoke to an audience that included the Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Mr. Adelson owns the Venetian hotel and casino, where the event was held, and his willingness to spend more than $100 million on his politician of choice imbues him with enormous power in the Republican nomination fight.

“His answers were direct statements about what he thought the right approach was for him, from his point of view, without being personal or critical of anyone else,” said Mr. Fleischer, a Republican Jewish Coalition board member who asked his former boss questions on stage.

Mr. Bush, who appeared at ease before the friendly crowd, offered a blunt assessment of the baggage that being a Bush can bring a presidential hopeful. He described his brother as capable, but acknowledged being a liability to the former Florida governor’s all-but-announced candidacy, noting that it was easy for rivals to say in debates that the nation did not need another Bush.

“He essentially said people don’t want dynasties in America,” said Elise Weingarten, who was in the audience.

At one point, Mr. Fleischer asked Mr. Bush what qualities he sought in a president “other than a last name that’s very similar to yours.” The crowd chuckled, and Mr. Bush spoke about “judgment” and “authenticity.” He expressed a reluctance to enter the campaign fray, because it could be unhelpful to his brother and unseemly. “That’s why you won’t see me,” he said.

Mr. Bush rarely involves himself in policy discussions nowadays, but he has ventured out on the issues that matter most to him. He gave a speech supporting the overhaul of immigration laws and has advocated more help to combat disease in Africa.

Last year, when he released a loving biography of his father, he skated around his self-imposed line of not criticizing his successor. In the book, he attributed the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq to “subsequent developments and decisions” that came after he left office. And in an interview at that time, he raised concerns about Mr. Obama’s plans to pull troops out of Afghanistan before leaving office. “I do worry that a lack of U.S. presence in Afghanistan will create a vacuum,” he said.

Mr. Bush gingerly weighed in on presidential politics Saturday, speaking admiringly of the “good candidates” in the Republican field and calling Mrs. Clinton “formidable” but beatable. Mr. Bush said she faced a predicament in determining whether to seek distance or continuity with the Obama administration, which she served as secretary of state.

He spoke dismissively of candidates who surrounded themselves with “sycophants” and bemoaned a culture built around a single person or party. The goal, he stressed, should be about serving the national interest.

By The New York Times