With the start of a long season of debates and campaigning among presidential hopefuls, it’s time to start scrutinizing foreign policy positions more closely along party lines. How will a Republican president steer the nation in a complex global world?
This is our question, now that 10 leading GOP candidates stood for two hours of grilling from Fox News journalists in Cleveland last week. (We’ll get to the Democrats when they stage their exchanges—half a dozen not yet scheduled.)
It’s true that policy positions on President Obama’s pending accord governing Iran’s nuclear program reveal no pattern whatsoever along partisan lines. There are “for” and “against” votes across the aisle—notably the “no” announced by Senator Chuck Schumer last Thursday, the ranking New York Democrat.
It’s also true that Republicans and Democrats traditionally close ranks on foreign policy questions. But this went out the window when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress at Republicans’ invitation, last March.
With one exception, the top Republican candidates unite in asserting that Obama’s foreign policy record leaves America weakened and wanting in credibility among allies and adversaries alike. Rand Paul’s “conservative realism” leaves him the odd man out.
In his libertarian critique of American conduct abroad, Paul opposes interventions (both Iraq wars, the Syrian conflict, the bombing of ISIS, the Ukraine crisis) and favors a less confrontational approach on key policy questions such as Russia. Some call him courageous, others dangerous.
Unlike Paul, most of the GOP contenders promise to reassert American primacy in the global order—a “bring America back” theme common since Reagan (to whom GOP hopefuls often refer).
Issue No. 1 is the Iran accord, which Congress is due to approve or reject in a September 17 vote. On one side are candidates such as Scott Walker who promise to kill the deal their first day in the White House, if he’s elected. On the other are Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who refuse any such commitment, asserting that they’d want to assess conditions at the time and consult with competent foreign policy advisers.
Given the importance of the Iran question—I count it an historic turn, altogether correct—the GOP candidates’ stance on it could (and should) come close to being the decisive policy position.
Issue No. 2: The war (or whatever we’re calling it) against ISIS, the Assad regime in Damascus, and various terror groups in Yemen and elsewhere is so complex that candidates other than Rand Paul don’t much distinguish themselves with nuanced strategies. Two safe bets here, however.
One, the bombing campaign against ISIS will escalate, probably to involve carefully calibrated numbers of U.S. personnel on the ground, and a Republican president will drop the thought that Assad be considered a secondary concern until ISIS is defeated.
Two, Washington will make use of Turkey’s recent recruitment into the anti-ISIS fight to consolidate its place in the NATO constellation. This could prove significant in disrupting Turkey’s gradual drift into the Russian orbit.
Issue No. 3 is Russia. I count the heightening of tensions between Washington and Moscow the single biggest blot on the Obama record. Paul’s anti-belligerence argument notwithstanding, all candidates on the Republican side promise to escalate this turn for the worse. Look for a severe tightening of sanctions and more material support for the Ukrainian armed forces. In one of his carefully timed foreign policy speeches earlier this year, Bush said he wants the Pentagon to send lethal weapons to the Kiev government.
Issue No. 4, Israel, turns partly on the Iran deal and partly on the Netanyahu government’s West Bank policies. Again, the Republican field promises as one to maintain the alliance with Israel in much more traditional form than any Democratic opponent.
The Iran accord has alienated the Israelis and implied clearly that Israel’s place in America’s Middle East strategy is in for a medium-term recalibration. With almost any GOP candidate in the White House, the tensions will relax and support for Israel will return to its standard form: The Iran pact goes into the trash and what amounts to almost limitless tolerance of Israel’s West bank activities will resume. Paul even wants to cancel all American funding to the Palestinian Authority.
Some issues divide the Republicans more markedly. Marco Rubio is more strongly opposed to the opening to Cuba than others, but I doubt this will go far given the mounting interest in new opportunities among American corporations.
Jeb Bush’s position on immigration—he favors reforms—similarly marks him out. But is this a case of principle without a price, given widespread reluctance to move forward on this divisive question?
Troublingly, these candidates are more or less united by way of foreign policy experience: Almost none can boast of any. Phil Graham, the South Carolina senator, has an extensive record of involvement, but this makes him the outlier.
Two causes for concern here.
One, a mark of our time is that events abroad can no longer be considered distant, of secondary importance to this nation’s well-being, and hence to be trusted to a semi-sequestered Ivy League elite. Those days are over. It is emphatically not the time for on-the-job training, which many have said is the failure of the Obama administration.
Two, with the exception of Marco Rubio who gave a strong talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, knowing something or not much about foreign policy doesn’t seem to make any difference in the Republican camp. This I take as a sign that announced positions do not reflect sufficient thought and consultation from policy experts. It won’t do as this campaign emerges onto the national stage, especially if Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, is the Democratic nominee.
Finally, this first presidential debate leaves a lot of blanks to be filled in. One glaring example: The Obama White House’s poor management of relations across the Pacific may appear less combustible than the faceoff with Russia, but by way of magnitude, China’s emergence and the related South China Sea question are of equal significance.