When it comes to foreign policy, many presidential candidates begin their trek to the White House without the requisite knowledge and experience to become commander in chief. Not all presidents are like Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan or Bush 41, who came fully prepared to walk out on the world stage. But little experience or detailed knowledge is better than bad instincts and a dreadful record.
Among the 2016 contenders who are solid internationalists and experienced in some aspect of foreign policy or national security are Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) (his military background and initial preparation for 2012 will be valuable). All three have voiced opposition to defense cuts, argue for a strong American presence in the world, are proponents of a close relationship with Israel and support free trade.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will argue that both as a prosecutor and as governor he’s had to deal with terrorism and homeland security. That’s a bit more than an average governor, but he too will have a learning curve. We know less about his views than those of the senators or candidates who have run before, although his foreign policy speech focusing primarily on Israel was robust and reassuring in conveying his belief that U.S. engagement in the world is essential to our security.
Then there are those governors who are candid about their lack of experience and knowledge. This week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) acknowledged that he hadn’t formed an opinion on Gitmo or waterboarding. The lack of specific positions, I’ve come to believe, is not at all disqualifying. A candidate with good instincts, a willingness to learn and the ability to gather wise advisers can turn out to be a fine foreign policy president. Much more problematic are those candidates who have some experience and consider themselves well versed on the issues but who are dangerously misguided — just as Barack Obama was in 2008.
Into that category would fall most obviously Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In his recent remarks on Fox News concerning Iran, he sounded remarkably like President Obama. (This is not a good thing for a Republican contender.) But more than that, he sounded fuzzy, halting and uninformed:
BRET BAIER: So would you do anything — would you do anything different than this administration is doing?
PAUL: You know, I guess it’s unclear what we’re doing at this point because I’m not privy to exactly what is going on with the negotiations. But I think it’s a good sign that we are in negotiations and that Iran, I think, is feeling the sanctions. And I think that’s why they’ve come to the negotiating table.
BAIER: But this administration it seems is to trying to dial back on the sanctions in order to go to this next step. Are you in favor of that?
PAUL: I think that if you go to negotiations there will be carrot and stick and I’m not sure what the — I know what stick is but I’m not sure what carrot is and what the exchange will be. But I think if you want to negotiate and you want to have diplomacy, there is some kind of exchange.
I do think, though, that ultimately if we want Iran to behave and enter into the civilized world again, I think China and Russia can have a great deal of influence on this. Most of the oil that flows through the Straits of Hormuz goes out to the West, India, Japan, China. And what we’ve limited, they’re still importing quite a bit of that oil. Ultimately, if China were completely with us on this, I think Iran would turn around and really would accept significant changes.
China?! Charles Krauthammer thought that absurd as well. (“But senator, China has shown zero interest in reining in Iran’s nuclear program over the last decade, and Russia, as well. There’s no hope of that happening.”) Paul rambled on:
I haven’t seen what the sanctions are yet. But what I would say is that I am a little bit concerned about having new sanctions in the middle of negotiations, whether that leads to more negotiation or less negotiation. And I think there’s at least a reasonable argument that adding new sanctions — and I’ve supported every one of the sanctions so far, but adding new sanctions in the middle of the negotiation, whether that’s a good idea or not or whether that scares them away from the table. My goal is I want the outcome to hopefully be one that’s not war. I think we’ve had quite a bit of war in the last decade. I would like to have an outcome where Iran agrees not to create nuclear weapons, but at the same time we do it without having to have a war.
He pointedly refused to rule out containment in the future.
I asked social conservative and pro-Israel leader Gary Bauer what he thought. He replied via e-mail: “Senator Paul has a credibility gap on the US-Israel alliance. As he should know, it is the path of weakness that President Obama is leading us down that will likely lead to war.” He added, “To suggest that China and Russia will ‘solve’ this for us is incredibly naive. Americans of all stripes who value the US-Israel alliance and who understand that both nations are facing the same jihadist enemies will find his answer troubling.”
Indeed, Republicans in the primary process will likely deride the incumbent president for cutting defense, abandoning Israel, making the U.S. less respected, forfeiting zero tolerance of WMDs and getting caught napping while al-Qaeda spreads through North Africa and Iran spreads its influence throughout the region. Will these voters go for more of the same as Obama has delivered or seek a more robust foreign policy vision? I strongly suspect the latter, but in any case they are going to look for someone who crisply and forcefully defends American interests.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is a more complicated figure. He opposed action in Syria and shares Rand Paul’s obsession with droning people at cafes. Yet he strenuously opposed the inept Chuck Hagel (who had opposed Iran sanctions and made a slew of anti-Israel remarks) for defense secretary. Cruz has taken an appropriately tough stance on Iran, although he failed to see the connection between Syria and Iran. Is there some philosophical underpinning to this or is he simply following the political fashions of the far-right? He’ll need to figure out what he believes and convey that worldview to voters if he wants to run for the presidency.
There is also something else at work when it comes to foreign policy. It’s very hard for voters to gauge in an election, and sometimes the candidate himself doesn’t know until he is in office: How does he react in a crisis? Does he have steel in the spine and does he balance prudence with toughness? You want a president who is not experiencing his first security crisis in the Oval Office. Character may be revealed in a candidate’s past record but intangible leadership qualities are not always evident during a presidential campaign.
GOP voters would do well to look at candidates’ convictions about America’s role in the world, the nature of the challenges we face and how they intend to put their vision practice (e.g. defense spending increases or decreases, cutting or enhancing foreign aid, forming or avoiding new bilateral alliances). Candidates who project weakness, confusion or naiveté need not apply.