After eight years of a Democratic administration, Republicans are still feeling their way forward on a foreign policy agenda. The issue is clearly an important one in the 2016 campaign — a recent CNN poll found that it’s a top issue for Republican voters. And the candidates clearly agree that Obama’s policies are bad for the country, starting with the Iran deal.
Republicans threw out a multitude of tough-guy suggestions during a debate in which the middle-of-the-pack, mainstream Republican candidates advocated an America-first, go-it-alone strategy toward the world. That includes deploying the military to handle various global threats, icing out world leaders who aren’t already considered allies, and eschewing anything that looks like Obama-style diplomacy.
“Weakness is provocative,” Ted Cruz said, charging that through moves like striking the Iran deal, President Obama has handed over the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations. “No president of the United States, Republican or Democrat, has the authority to give away our sovereignty.”
“When we pull back, voids are created,” said Jeb Bush, who argued that Obama’s policies compromised the foreign policy legacy of his brother, former president George W. Bush. “We left Iraq…we politically and militarily pulled back, and now we have the creation of ISIS.”
“We need the strongest military on the face of the planet and everyone has to know what that means,” said Carly Fiorina, who pledged she “wouldn’t talk to [Putin] at all.” Instead, Fiorina recommended strengthening the Navy’s Sixth Fleet, rebuilding missile defense programs in Poland, sending more troops to Europe, updating the country’s nuclear arsenal, and arming everyone from the Jordanians to the Kurds.
In the undercard debate earlier in the evening, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went so far as to say that there was no way to defeat ISIS without sending 20,000 U.S. ground troops into Syria.
“Are you willing to send American combat forces into Syria as part of a regional army, because if you don’t, we’ll never destroy ISIL in Syria,” Graham said. “If you’re not ready to these things you’re not ready to be commander-in-chief.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stood out for his decidedly dovish tone, pointing out his opposition to the Iraq war and stating: “There will always be a Bush or Clinton for you, if you want to go back to war in Iraq.”
The two GOP front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, also struck a less hawkish tone. But advocates for a more nuanced way to project U.S. strength in the world were all but drowned out by the candidates campaigning to a more militaristic drumbeat.
“I have no argument with having a strong leader, and to be aggressive where aggression is needed, but it is not needed in every circumstance,” said Carson, who is currently polling second, when asked to explain why he wouldn’t have responded to the Sept. 11 attacks by going to war in Afghanistan. “There is a time when you can use your intellect to come up with other ways to do things.”
“Radical terrorism cannot be solved by intellect,” Marco Rubio retorted. “You cannot allow radical jihadists to have an operating safe haven anywhere in the world.”
“It’s about judgment,” said front-runner Donald Trump, when moderator Hugh Hewitt, who exposed Trump’s minimal foreign policy knowledge in a recent interview asked him to explain why he hadn’t built up a squad of foreign policy advisers.
“I’m a very militaristic person, but you have to know when to use the military,” Trump continued. “I’m the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq.”
“When Donald Trump talks about judgment, what was his position on who would have been the best negotiator to deal with Iran? It wasn’t a Republican; it was Hillary Clinton,” Bush shot back.
But while the candidates stood in opposition to Obama’s policies, they were less clear about how they would execute their own strategies.
For some, like Bush, their vision for the future seems inextricably linked with the past.
“You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe,” he said.
For others, like Cruz and Rubio, being commander-in-chief would mean getting a chance to show they can do more than just obstruct Obama’s policies in the Senate, but rewrite them from the same Oval office.
“There is a lunatic in North Korea with dozens of nuclear weapons,” Rubio said. “A gangster in Moscow is not just threatening Europe, he’s threatening to destroy and divide NATO.”
“We will have a president willing to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’” Cruz said, “and the Ayatollah Khamenei will understand that he will never, ever, ever acquire nuclear weapons.”
Paul chided his colleagues for proving their presidential mettle by threatening to rip up deals and shun problematic world leaders.
“Think if Reagan had said that during the Cold War?” he asked of the candidates. “We continued to talk with the Russians throughout the Cold War, which is much more significant than where we are now.”
Besides Paul, only John Kasich was similarly accommodating of the status quo on the Iran deal now that it’s been struck, and the style of governance that forged it.
“We can project across this globe with unity, not just doing it alone. That is not what gets us where we want to get as a nation,” Kasich said.
And as for Trump? Well, improving the U.S. standing and influence in the world will come through the mysterious charm that only The Donald can wield.
“I will get along with others,” he promised, pointing out that relationship building was his job as a businessman, “and we will have a much more stable world.”