The GOP primaries are often a showcase of foreign policy bluster. During the last campaign, the candidates reveled in outmuscling each other on how tough they sounded on any issue with an international dimension. Any candidate could get attention by sounding more hawkish than the next guy. This year, with the crowded field of candidates, the desperation to stand out is already showing. While grandstanding and machismo may pay off in the primaries and perhaps even in the general election, it is unlikely to yield good results for American interests abroad. None of the Republican presidential candidates has articulated a foreign policy platform that deserves to be taken seriously.
The GOP candidates seem to have a tacit understanding that the primaries will be won on foreign policy. An increasing number of Americans are prioritizing foreign policy over the economy in the next round of elections. Appearing tough on international issues will play an especially important role in the primaries, as Republican voters are particularly worried about the threats of terrorism, and rank foreign policy as the top priority for the next president. A large and increasing number of Republicans favor sending ground troops in order to fight ISIS.
It isn’t difficult to distinguish yourself as a foreign policy expert if your opponents are Ben Carson, Scott Walker, or Mike Huckabee. But Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham have valiantly taken on the task of out-hawking each other. Whoever comes out on top will have the formidable task of confronting the experienced Hillary Clinton on foreign policy issues. The Republicans know that they will need to link the next Democratic candidate to an unpopular Obama policy in order to win. With the majority of Americans disapproving of the President’s handling of ISIS, Republicans are betting that this is an area in which they can defeat the Democratic candidate. With the economy improving, several candidates have taken up the mantle of foreign policy. Undoubtedly, they will attempt to link Hillary Clinton to Obama in a policy area in which the president’s approval ratings have been weak.
In order to seize this opportunity, Republicans need to coalesce around a candidate with a coherent and well-thought-out foreign policy. There have been plenty of candidates and potential candidates put forth, but such a thing should not be expected from any of the GOP candidates. To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the candidates will stick to the tried-and-tired hawkish policies of speaking harshly and carrying a big stick and bombing adversaries into submission without anticipating the consequences.
One would think that the failed policies of the past would eliminate the possibility of another Bush/Cheney neoconservative influence on foreign policy. Yet Jeb Bush has enlisted the man who rushed the country into the Iraq war in the first place as his top advisor on Middle East issues. Many argue- and even Jeb himself agrees - that his last name will be his biggest obstacle to the presidency, but that hasn’t stopped him from advocating for the same destructive foreign policy implemented by his brother. He confirmed the worst of our worries by saying, “What you need to know is that who I listen to when I need advice on the Middle East is George W. Bush.”
It’s strange that Jeb is relying on his brother’s foreign policy advice not only because the Iraq war delivered that country to ISIS, but also because it is now deeply unpopular. A revival of W’s foreign policy doctrine would be disastrous for America, but it might perhaps be even more disastrous for Jeb’s campaign -ending it before it even begins. If Bush advocates putting boots on the ground in order to address the threat of ISIS in Iraq, he would be the third Bush to send troops to the region, and we all know how that has worked out in the past. Unless we want to find ourselves in the same situation in ten years, we should not take Jeb Bush’s foreign policy seriously.
Ted Cruz advocates a dangerous foreign policy best characterized by the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart as “militaristic pessimism.” Cruz offers plenty of the bluster and saber-rattling of the most hawkish neocons without the agenda of promoting American-style democracy worldwide. He has stated his strategy for fighting ISIS is “bomb[ing] them back to the stone age.” Such a bellicose declaration makes it clear that Cruz prefers an aggressive image designed to make him look tough to consciously deliberating the practicality or efficacy of a military solution to the threat posed by ISIS.
Cruz’s brand of militarism is even more dangerous because it ignores on-the-ground realities. In addressing the threat posed by ISIS, Cruz identified Mexico as America’s battleground against the extremist group. That’s right: according to the senator, El Paso - not cities in Iraq or Syria - should be the basis of operations against ISIS. He also subscribes to the reductionist analyses of Middle Eastern affairs that blame all conflict in the region on sectarian tensions between Muslims. Addressing the reasons for conflict in the region, and stressing the futility of aiming for reconciliation, Cruz stated, “the Sunnis and Shiites have been engaged in sectarian civil war since 632.” This overly simplified (and overly pessimistic) analysis is testament to the fact that Cruz misses the nuances of a complex issue that deserves attention beyond recycled talking points.
In carving out a niche for himself in the Republican primaries, Lindsey Graham has nowhere to go but foreign policy. But it seems that even in this field, he has nothing but bigoted remarks to offer. In a recent video addressed to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, Graham implied that running his family’s pool room would help him make major foreign policy decisions. His remarks regarding Iranians was even more surprising, “My family owned a restaurant, a pool room, and a liquor store. And everything I know about the Iranians I learned in the pool room. I ran the pool room when I was a kid and I met a lot of liars, and I know the Iranians are liars.” This is comparable to Sarah Palin’s remarks that the fact that Alaskans can see Russian soil from their land makes the Alaskan governor qualified on foreign policy matters.
Just a few weeks before the comment about Iranians, Graham made another senseless statement regarding issues in the Middle East, saying, “ everything that starts with ‘Al’ in the Middle East is bad news.” It’s not necessary to have a degree in Arabic literature to conduct foreign policy in the Middle East, but that degree is also not a prerequisite to knowing that “Al” is the Arabic equivalent for “the,” or that this incredibly narrow-minded comment has no place in a serious foreign policy debate. With these remarks, it’s strangely puzzling that Graham is still being taken seriously as a foreign policy intellectual in the Republican party.
Foreign policy doctrines have long had a relevance for America’s presidents: they are an effort to address the foreign policy challenges facing the United States at any given time. Credit must be given to Florida senator Marco Rubio for at least attempting to put together a coherent foreign policy strategy, although it would be fair to say he has failed miserably in his attempt. Rubio’s three-pillar foreign policy doctrine is as follows, “American strength, protection of the American economy in a globalized world and moral clarity regarding America’s core values.”
Rubio’s three pillars are an ambiguous compilation of cliched slogans - they do not constitute a foreign policy doctrine. A doctrine is exactly what Rubio would need to establish himself as a foreign policy heavyweight, but in order to do that, he needs to address the specific challenges facing America, and then explain his prescription for a way forward. Nothing in his career indicates that he’s capable of doing any of that.
For Republicans, striking an aggressive hawkish pose is prioritized over getting to the substance of important foreign policy issues. While this may create quotable talking points or win the candidates points in the primaries, it doesn’t mean that these foreign policy prescriptions should be taken seriously, or that it will help them defeat a seasoned veteran of the foreign policy arena in Hillary Clinton.
If the Republicans want to be serious as productive contributors to foreign policy debates, they must come to terms with the reality that America can’t take on global threats without the assistance of key relevant players. Unfortunately for Republicans, their two key identified threats - ISIS and Iran - are at war with each other. A sober analysis may help them to understand that bombing campaigns and sounding tough may have run their course.
The “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive attacks on perceived threats was a product of the neoconservative imagination and was enthusiastically implemented by George W. Bush. But with all its flaws, it at least qualified as a doctrine. The foreign policies advocated by today’s Republican candidates are far from coherent and even more aggressive than Bush’s. In fact, they would make the Bush presidency a dove’s dream.
The fact that such empty and bellicose rhetoric exists points to an absence of a substantive debate on foreign policy issues in the GOP. This prevents a well-articulated platform for handling international issues from emerging, to the detriment of the Republican party. After all, It’s hard to imagine that the foreign policy platforms of any of the GOP candidates would resonate with a war-weary population.
It’s worth remembering that George W. Bush ran on a noninterventionist foreign policy. With any luck, if a Republican president is elected, he will have as dramatic of a turnabout in foreign policy thinking as Bush.