In virtually every poll conducted despite the outlet doing the polling, foreign policy and national security do not rate particularly high on the list of concerns of the electorate. One Gallup poll puts the number at 2% of voters who believe foreign policy is the number one issue facing this country. All this may change in 2016 with the presidential election.
Foreign policy and, by extension national security, is the overriding existential concern of the United States that we don’t like to think about. It is only when we are shaken out of complacency that it takes center stage- events like Pearl Harbor, the Tet offensive, 9/11 and, most recently, the barbaric beheading of Westerners at the hands of ISIL.
Before the GOP can go up against any Democrat in the general election, they must first get their house in order as concerns foreign policy. Regarding that policy, the 2016 election is somewhat like the 2004 election when the Iraq War and what to do about it dominated the discussion. There was no housing crisis or Great Recession in 2004- only Iraq. It was the central issue in that election. But that was a Democratic versus Republican debate.
There is no shortage of debate within the Republican Party itself. Whether it is the non-interventionist approach of a [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ] or the more hawkish rhetoric of a John Bolton, debate runs the ideological gamut. Perhaps the closest thing to this intra-party debate was the 1976 GOP campaign when Henry Kissinger criticized the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan as being too tough and naive when it comes to foreign policy. When Reagan pushed back and accused Ford and Kissinger of weakening America, he surprised everyone and won the North Carolina primary. Although not winning the nomination, Reagan nevertheless was influential in shaping the party’s foreign policy platform at the national convention and for years after.
In fact, other than 2008, the Republican Party is generally seen as the party better equipped to deal with national security and foreign policy. Obama basically asserted that George W. Bush squandered all that with the Iraq War. Obviously, we should not reopen the debate about the war although those on the Left would dearly love to do so. By doing so, they distract from the real issue- Obama’s utter failure in the area of foreign policy. We can look at the top 4 things Democrats tout or touted as Obama foreign policy achievements over the past six years- the death of Osama Bin Laden, the fight against terrorism in Yemen, an end to the Iraq War, and the Russian reset. Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s success rate (and, by implication, Hillary Clinton) is 25% and that simply will not cut it in an increasingly dangerous world.
The public, including many Democrats, has soured on the Obama foreign policy, especially in the last two years, which coincides with Clinton’s departure as Secretary of State. And any discussion in this area must necessarily include Clinton since she is (1) the presumptive Democratic candidate and general election frontrunner and (2) perceived to have the qualifications when it comes to foreign policy by virtue of her four years at the State Department. However, none of her supporters can name a single major accomplishment of her’s in those four years other than she visited numerous countries. The far Left wing of the Democratic Party is suspicious of her and views her as a hawk. Yet, they still say they would forgive her this transgression and support and vote for her should she run. The ultimate question, leaving aside Benghazi which will haunt her forever, is whether her tenure at the State Department really is a strength? She may have been privy to negotiations, decisions and policy, but to what practical ends?
Until now like the rest of the electorate, none of the interested GOP candidates have shown much interest in foreign policy. If we stick to former formats, at least one presidential debate will be about foreign policy. Also considering that many of the potential field are governors or ex-governors, foreign policy is not a area of expertise. So, what are the prospective candidates doing in this area?
We know Paul’s views and they do not sit well with many in the GOP. He raised some eyebrows when he accused Dick Cheney of pushing the Iraq War given his ties to Halliburton. Comments like that win standing ovations at far Left conventions. His libertarian leanings are taking him into isolationist territory and he has since penned some articles claiming that a robust foreign policy is desirable. Ron Paul, his father, has an extensive fundraising apparatus that the younger Paul can tap into; in fact, it was second only to Romney in 2012. Ironically, the top 5 employers of those donors were the Army, Air Force, Navy, Google and the Defense Department.
Chris Christie is holding late night educational sessions and is relying on long-time strategist Bob Grady. Grady has brought in Bob Zoellick, a former Trade Representative and president of the World Bank to help flesh out policy along with Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser from 2012, Brian Hook, to provide history and background. He has recently traveled to Canada, Mexico, and Great Britain.
[mc_name name=’Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’G000359′ ] has always had his feet in foreign affairs policy while John Bolton is perhaps the only one with legitimate expertise in the area. Mike Pence is touting his resume from his time in DC before becoming governor of Indiana and has scheduled a trip to Israel later this year. Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal have made foreign policy speeches abroad in the past year also and Perry is, like Christie, boning up on policy and history. Cruz has been almost all foreign policy ever since being instrumental in the short-lived government shutdown and debt limit fights. And we know Walker and others are bringing themselves up to speed on foreign policy. That leaves Rubio and Bush.
Other than Bolton, Rubio is probably the best-positioned in this area. In fact, many have dubbed him the “statesman in waiting” in the Republican Party. This may help him in the Vice Presidential sweepstakes more than at the top of the ticket. Also, the recent proposed reconciliation efforts towards Cuba have given Rubio a new forum to discuss foreign policy issues. As for Bush, his stances are largely unknown. However, he will most likely tap into George W.’s foreign policy brain trust for background, if not actual policy.
In effect, the next President will have to thread the needle between the perceived iron fist of a George Bush and the velvet glove approach of a Barack Obama, as others commentators have described it. What should the Republican Party do? A Wall Street Journal article by Bolton is especially useful here.
First, any candidate who downplays foreign policy should be rejected. Terrorism, a militaristic Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian question, a nuclear Iran, immigration, Cuba, free trade, China, and North Korea are all very important policy areas that have or may have an effect on domestic prosperity. Second, there should be pride in a strong United States internationally and they should exude a positive message that America is a force of good in the world. Towards those ends, third, there should be no apologetics. That doesn’t necessarily mean one wraps themselves in a flag; it does suggest that any foreign policy removes Obama’s rose-colored glasses of political correctness and see the world in realistic terms: there are evil people, groups and nations out there who care less about the United States and will take advantage of every perceived weakness when they can.
Fourth, wherever possible, one needs to make the case that a strong foreign policy has a positive effect on domestic tranquility and prosperity. The less we have to worry about threats from outside, the better we can take care of domestic problems. Fifth, any potential candidate should espouse specific actions to specific situations- an “if…then” foreign policy. That illustrates clarity and principle. And finally, learn from the Democrats in 2008. After winning the election, they squandered over a year on health care reform when jobs and the economy were the overriding concern of the population. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama and the Democrats firmly believe that the top national security concern is climate change. Let them defend that belief, let them espouse that policy. Then juxtapose those comments against the daily horrific acts of Islamic terrorism in places like Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Force Clinton to speak the unspeakable (if you are a Democrat) and something Obama is unwilling or afraid to say: Islamic terrorism. In this area, the GOP has a ready-made tagline: “You deserve better, America.”