In defending the Obama administration’s foreign policy record, the media and (other) Democratic partisans often say to Republican critics, “Well, what would you do?” Republicans shouldn’t be defensive. In fact, there are many alternatives to the past 5 1/2 years of incompetent and wrongheaded foreign policy. Republicans should be happy to spell them out.
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that he would condemn a recent U.N. Human Rights Council vote on Israel. “The U.N. human rights report is a joke,” he said. “The U.N. [is] becoming more anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic. I would push back, Congress will do this, [Sens. Chuck] Schumer, [Robert] Menendez and myself, we’re going to push back against this report. When it comes to Syria and Iraq, I would come up with a military game plan in coordination with the regional allies to stop [the Islamic State] from growing in strength. I would push political reconciliation in Baghdad but I’d come up with a military plan to stop these terrorist organizations from growing in strength before they hit our homeland.” That’s a solid list.
Republicans who want to succeed President Obama should be fully prepared to answer the “what would you do” question as well, both as to the past and to the future.
As with Obamacare or the border fiasco, it’s not unreasonable for Republicans to make the case that we wouldn’t be in a lot of these foreign policy fixes if they had been in charge. We’ll never know, of course, but it is helpful to spell out the differences between what Obama did and what smarter foreign policy moves were possible before we got to the current wall-to-wall debacles in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The list is long: Don’t begin the presidency with a groveling video directed to the Iranian people. Support the Green Revolution. Make clear that any reduction in tensions with Iran and its exclusion from the international “community” will require cessation of its nuclear program plus an end to support for terrorism and domestic progress on human rights. Don’t initiate Russian “reset,” pull anti-missile sites out of Poland and the Czech Republic, oppose the Magnitsky Act or give Russia unconditional admittance into the World Trade Organization. Don’t slash defense. Don’t obsess over Israel’s settlements and pick fights in open with its elected government. Don’t pull all troops out of Iraq or set a date certain for our Afghanistan pullout. Don’t ignore the spread of al-Qaeda throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Don’t block anti-Iran sanctions. Don’t give Iran a sunset clause sanctions or suggest a right to enrichment as part of an interim deal that contains no irreversible changes by Iran. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel against Hamas and in turn against Iran, providing Israel with equipment such as bunker busters to make the threat of military action plausible. Don’t put human rights on the back burner with virtually every country. Move swiftly before jihadis poured in Syria to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Don’t neglect Libya after the civil war, letting it descend into chaos.
There are probably more, but you get the point. Everyone who wants to be president, including Hillary Clinton, owes it to the voters to explain how things could have been different if he or she was sitting in the Oval Office. If Clinton really did object to many of the president’s moves, she needs to say so; otherwise silence can be taken as assent. (Where is she on the Gaza truce, for example?) It is worth pointing out that none of this was brain surgery; many Republicans and some Democrats took these positions all along. They deserve credit, and those who joined the administration in its folly need to be held accountable.
What about going forward? I’d like to hear Clinton’s views on whether she’d be insisting that Hamas be disarmed, the tunnels destroyed and the rockets handed over before a truce goes into effect. Now that the Islamic State is growing in Iraq and Syria, posing a direct threat to the United States, which candidates will throw up their hands and which will propose a dual track of military assistance and diplomatic involvement? I’d like to hear who among the candidates would have approved the interim deal, especially a sunset clause for Iran.
There are many specific steps, as Graham indicated, that would at least improve our current position. Increase defense spending; it’s not too late for that. Champion conditional sanctions if no acceptable deal is reached with Iran by the new November deadline. Develop domestic energy resources as both an economic and foreign policy necessity, assisting Europe in freeing itself from dependence on Russian energy. Step up aid to non-jihadi rebels in Syria. None of this involves “boots on the ground,” but it would evidence some awareness of diminished U.S. credibility and alienation of allies.
When Clinton says the problem is we aren’t telling a “good story” or Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says we need fewer and not more bases and troops overseas, their potential competitors should engage them just as they would on domestic matters. The natural tendency of campaigns is to let others fight it out and take the “high ground.” But in this case, that is poor advice. Part of the problem we currently have is a president unwilling to articulate or entirely confused about our national security interests. It’s not enough for candidates to disagree with Obama or Clinton or right-wing isolationists; they have to be ready to say so and defend their views. It will be one indication as to whether they will have the stomach for real foreign policy fights later on.