The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Being right about foreign policy isn’t enough

Placeholder while article actions load

Mitt Romney has postulated that he is the right man for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 because he was right on national security. The problem with this argument is that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has indicated that he is interested in exploring a run, were right as well — and offer the hope that they can deploy their foreign policy bona fides to defeat the likely Democratic candidate, President Obama’s former secretary of state.

If being right is the criterion, Graham has been right about more things on foreign policy for longer than just about anyone in the race. In 2007, Graham was a strenuous supporter of the Iraq surge. In 2009, he weighed in against a fixed timetable for withdrawal from U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In 2010, he warned against ratification of the New START deal, correctly predicting Russia would cheat. Graham warned against dismantling the National Security Agency and closing Guantanamo Bay, consistently argued against applying criminal law concepts to the war against jihadists, defended the use of drones, railed at the administration for inactivity on Syria and opposed Obama’s endless negotiations with Iran and abandonment of key bargaining positions. If anyone has bragging rights on foreign policy, it is Graham.

It is reasonable to argue that if a Republican candidate has gotten significant foreign policy issues wrong, does not have a realistic worldview, does not understand that we are in a war against a global jihadist threat, does not support increased military spending, is not willing to renounce limits on our options in the war against the Islamic State and is not prepared to increase economic pressure on Iran and enhance the credibility of the military option, he or she does not pass the minimal requirements for the GOP presidential nomination.

After all, the GOP has returned to its historic position as the party strong on national security, and the party will sacrifice its advantage against a key architect of Obama’s foreign policy, Hillary Clinton, if it fails to nominate someone who has been a consistent critic of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry foreign policy. That is the minimum, however, not the justification for a third run by a candidate who refused to highlight national security during the 2012 race (a failure we routinely criticized), made some potentially disastrous foreign policy personnel picks, had an error-plagued trip to Britain, could not score points against Obama in a foreign policy debate and wound up playing defense on the attack in Benghazi, Libya. He was so ham-handed as to leave out thanks for the troops in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Indeed, Romney’s foreign policy performance in 2012 is precisely the argument against him now: Even though he was correct and faced a candidate exceptionally vulnerable on foreign policy, Romney’s aversion to substance and his timidity prevented him from capitalizing on the issue. This is an argument against his candidacy, not in favor of it. His downplaying of foreign policy was one manifestation of the Romney advisers’ false conviction that if they just got people to agree Obama was wrong on the economy, Romney would win. Those same advisers appear to be back for a potential third run.

In short, the GOP would be far better off with a nominee who was right on foreign policy and can use it to disqualify Obama’s foreign policy partner. It is of no use to be “right” when you cannot communicate effectively with the electorate and use your issue advantage to win a winnable race.