The frustration that the Republican Party establishment feels with Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the two current leaders in the GOP’s presidential primary, has been palpable for a long time, but it is generally focused on their rhetoric related to domestic policy. The major concern is that Trump’s nativism and Cruz’s hardline Christian conservatism will alienate the Party from voters – women, Hispanics, African Americans, religious and ethnic minorities – that the GOP desperately needs to attract.
But if former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ appearance on Meet the Press Sunday is any indication, there’s plenty of discomfort with their foreign policy, too.
Gates, a Republican, was appointed to lead the Defense Department by former president George W. Bush and stayed on for two and a half years in the Obama administration. He showed up on NBC Sunday to promote his latest book, but in a conversation with host Chuck Todd, he was asked to assess four different statements from presidential contenders on how they would suggest handling ISIS.
“I just want you to assess the different ideas,” Todd said, before listing them.
“One candidate: ‘We won't weaken them, we won't degrade them, we will utterly destroy them, we will carpet-bomb them into oblivion.’”
“Another candidate says, ‘You take away their wealth, you go knock the hell out of the oil, you take back the oil.’”
“Another one says they want a no-fly zone, humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground, try to provide some way back.”
“Another candidate says, ‘You've got to bring in a Muslim coalition together, Sunni and Shia fighting side by side.’“
Todd made a show of not telling Gates which candidates had made each statement. But to anybody following the Republican and Democratic primaries, as Gates surely is, it was obvious who said what. The statements came, in order, from Cruz, Trump, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Gates didn’t seem overly impressed with any of the suggestions. However, he at least credited Clinton and Sanders with putting forward feasible alternatives.
“I think bringing in some kind of Arab coalition to try and help, creating some kind of humanitarian corridor, or safe haven, they're both tough. But you could do them,” Gates said.
But when he turned to the suggestions put forward by Cruz and Trump, he was completely dismissive.
“The first alternatives, I think, are completely unrealistic. And furthermore, wouldn't accomplish the job. And I can't figure out whether those who are arguing that they really believe they can do that or whether they're just be cynical or opportunistic.”
Gates said that one of the reasons the call for overwhelming force is appealing on the campaign trail is that it seems like a simple answer.
However, he said, “[T]he problem is most of these problems are not simple. And it requires, first of all, building coalitions in Washington. It would be useful in terms of foreign policy and national security to have some coalitions in Washington, where Washington speaks with relatively one voice, one sum unity, before we try and form coalitions around the world.”
The criticism from Gates, who demonstrated in an earlier book that he is not a particular fan of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, probably won’t do anything to change the rhetoric Trump and Cruz use on the stump. It’s just one more indicator that, should either man gain the GOP nomination, the party machine that typically falls in line behind any GOP nominee may not be firing on all cylinders.