Last week Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana announced that he will make a five-day trip to Britain to promote Indiana businesses and trade. This follows a trip to Germany earlier in the year. Pence’s staff says his schedule is not yet set, so we don’t yet know whether he will have time for a public speech on broader foreign policy issues of the type he delivered in Germany.
If he wants to keep the possibility of a 2016 presidential race alive, Pence would be smart to do just that. Indeed, in just the few months since he spoke in Germany, the Middle East has been thrown into greater chaos and Crimea is firmly within the Russian bear’s grasp. In addition, the July 20 deadline for the P5+1 talks with Iran is fast approaching.
Pence is well prepared to deliver remarks on foreign policy given his time in Congress on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and his ongoing interest in foreign policy. He has the opportunity to present himself as an antidote to the flawed President Obama/Hillary Clinton/John Kerry policies and as a contrast to the head-in-the-sand approach of isolationists such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) – who repeatedly gets tripped up on his facts and insists that we have no interest in the fights in Syria and Iraq.
For Pence and other credible GOP presidential hopefuls, a few basic principles emphatically enunciated would go some distance in establishing their credibility on foreign policy. No one is expecting at this stage a country-by-country analysis of Obama’s failures and corrective action, but by now anyone seriously contemplating a presidential run should be able to converse about the major national security issues of the day.
First, Pence (and others) should urge the administration and Congress to stop short-changing defense. It is a canard to say that there is money “somewhere” to pay for an appropriately sized and prepared military; responsible figures from both parties (e.g. Leon Panetta, Robert Gates) as well as outside analysts have explained again and again the risks we have imposed on ourselves by failing adequately to fund our military; if nothing else, a change in funding and a commitment to prevent a hollowed-out military would send a signal to our friends and foes that the era of self-delusion is ending. Candidates who don’t know whether they favor more spending or blithely declare that we already spend more than other countries (so what?) reveal their lack of understanding (or fear of taking on the green eye-shade set who cut defense dollars while doing nothing to halt runaway entitlements).
Second, the gap between rhetoric (a red line in Syria, threatened economic action against Russia, etc.) and our actions is so vast that our president is no longer taken seriously. This, in turn, encourages aggression by foes and freelancing by our allies (e.g. Saudi Arabia resorts to funding Sunni rebels in the absence of determined U.S. action to check Iranian hegemonic ambitions). The next president must be able to define key U.S. interests — no use of weapons of mass destruction, no safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists, no nuclear threshold state (in Iran) — and then align deeds with words.
Third, we should be crystal clear about our interest in maintaining our alliance with Israel, the one solid and stable democratic ally in the Middle East. When three Israeli children are murdered, it’s not appropriate for the U.S. president to call for Israel’s “restraint” in pursuing terrorists and deterring further atrocities. When Congress wants to pass anti-Iran sanctions that would go into effect on July 21 if no final deal is agreed upon, it’s foolhardy to threaten a veto. And there should be no equivocation at this point about the nature of the Palestinian unity government and its responsibility for the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Fourth, our alliances are in poor shape after 5 1/2 years of Obama. The “pivot” to Asia has yet to occur. We reneged on providing missile defense systems to Poland and the Czech Republic. We have frayed relations with Israel and the Sunni monarchs, who view us as unreliable. The next president (or the people who want to be the next president) should commit to restoring (and expanding) NATO, re-establishing the special relationship with Britain, expanding security and other ties with India and stepping up to the plate to support democratic allies in Asia.
Fifth, it’s time to re-engage the American people in an honest way about the jihadist enemy we face, the extent to which it has spread, the essential components of fighting a long war against a nontraditional enemy and the stakes if, for example, an ISIS state takes root in the Middle East. It’s time to put aside one-liners (the government is listening to your cellphone calls!) and stop misstating basic principles of the law of warfare (no, enemy combatants overseas shouldn’t be Mirandized and sent to criminal courtrooms in the United States) The president and a great number of pols on the far right and left seem all too willing to return to the pre-9/11 days while our enemies increase in numbers and ferocity.
As I noted, a Republican hopeful’s foreign policy speech at this point doesn’t need to cover the waterfront, but it should convey a basic understanding of the international landscape, a sensible critique of where the president has gone off the rails and a commitment to restore the GOP to its traditional role as the pro-defense party. If candidates can’t or won’t do this, it is unlikely that they will be trusted with the presidency.