For populist right-wing presidential candidates, the need to cater to the base may conflict with the effort to appear prepared, presidential and temperamentally fit for the presidency. Just ask former Vermont governor Howard Dean. This is especially true in foreign policy, where lack of familiarity with the fine points of policy can lead candidates down a path they may regret.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to address sexual assault in the military, which was fortunately defeated in favor of an alternative that the military supports, is one example. The Pentagon and knowledgeable defense advocates in both parties realizes it is unwise and counterproductive to take commanders out of the chain of command and of discipline. (There is also considerable evidence the “crisis” is media-manufactured.)
Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute dubbed the Gillibrand version “very stupid.” He explained, “[I]t is unlikely to do anything about the problem of assault or harassment and will only dilute the culture of leadership responsibility on which military command rests. If we can’t trust commanders to be the ones to discipline their troops’ wrongful sexual conduct, why should we trust them with life-and-death decisions?”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) opposed i,t but two GOP senators, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Ted Cruz of Texas, voted for it. Last July when the measure first came up, Bill Kristol blasted the two: “Sens. Paul and Cruz are signing on to Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal to undermine the military’s chain of command on behalf of the pseudo-crisis of military sexual assault. The Obama administration thinks Gillibrand’s proposal is a bad idea. It is a bad idea. We’re curious to hear what substantive arguments Paul and Cruz will make on behalf of this proposal. Or is this just media grandstanding, like their last bold intervention in national security policy, when they raised the alarm about the dire threat of drone attacks on Americans sitting in cafes?” Despite his new-found appreciation for a robust foreign policy, Cruz stuck by his position. (Rand Paul, who eyes the Pentagon like he does the Fed, of course took to the floor to grandstand.) You see, if you support a forward-leaning foreign policy, you’d better support the military; in that case, undermining the chain of command is foolish.
Likewise, on the National Security Agency surveillance, there is zero evidence — zero — after Congressional investigation and a report by an independent commission (that nevertheless recommended unnecessary changes) that there was any abuse of privacy. Yet once again these two, along with many colleagues, attacked the program. (Cruz seemed to have cooled his ardor for attacking intelligence-gathering while Paul decided to mount a frivolous lawsuit.) If you believe Islamic jihadists are a real threat to the United States and that, as multiple members of the intelligence committees assert, it has worked to foil plots, you’d better think twice about undermining a program like this. Paul is more concerned with those terrorists in cafes, so it’s understandable he’s nonchalant about the damage done to our intelligence community, but again, Cruz should know better.
Foreign policy is not merely a list of specific positions (yes on Iran sanctions, no on Syria, yes on funding Israel’s Iron Dome); a sound foreign policy requires at the least an integrated worldview in which positions on one issue (e.g. getting rid of Iran’s closest ally, Bashar al-Assad) impact other objectives (deterring Iran). It’s easy to play to the crowd when an unpopular measure comes along (enforcing the red line against Syria, the NSA), but an advocate of a robust foreign policy must do just that. Perhaps Cruz will revisit some earlier positions now that the implications of them are clearly understood. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging a maturation of one’s views.
I don’t mean to pick on Cruz, who among Republicans of late has been a clear and consistent voice in favor of American power and the need to stand up to Iran and Russia. Indeed, on Thursday he asserted a tough foreign policy stance at CPAC and a detailed and cogent argument for American power at the National Security Action Summit (where he talked about the danger of a “vacuum of leadership” in the world). It’s fair to say he’s a work in progress when it comes to formulating a foreign policy vision. Soon, however, he and other presidential candidates will be expected to integrate their positions into a consistent worldview. That is demanding and sometimes politically inconvenient, but so is acting as a responsible commander in chief.
As for Paul, he’ll talk at CPAC this afternoon and may well issue some platitudes to mollify critics about his erratic comments (opposing Iran sanctions, defending Putin). But it’s fairly clear where his instincts lie — with a worldview not unlike his father’s (absent some of the more extreme conspiracy theories). It’s a world in which “economic integration” somehow supplants the need for hard and soft power. It’s a view that Iran can be “contained,” because the Soviet Union was. In short, it’s crackpottery and a major impediment for Paul, especially as the Obama foreign policy built on many of the same principles (eschewing hard power, ignoring human rights, advocating “we nation build” at home) goes up in smoke.
Governors may be among the best presidential nominees in 2016. But I cannot stress enough — they better know their stuff and have a sophisticated and consistent worldview. Otherwise, Republican won’t trade one defective commander in chief for another.