Maybe Donald Trump plans to buy a foreign policy. Because based on the CNN Republican presidential debate, he doesn’t seem to have one of his own — other than forming what sounds like a kind of “dictators club” with the big guys from Russia and China.
As for the other Republican candidates in Wednesday night’s debate, they mirrored the foreign policy frustration and disagreement that afflict the country as a whole. They all banged on President Obama’s allegedly weak leadership, but it was hard to know whether they would take the country deeper into war in the Middle East or move to a better-armed and safer distance.
You could hear some of the air deflating from the Trump balloon when he talked foreign policy. Asked what he would do about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military moves in Syria, Trump offered what sounded like a Yalta-style embrace. “I would talk to him. I would get along with him,” he said.
Big-guy diplomacy was also Trump’s apparent answer for Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We don’t get along with China. . . . We get along with nobody. I will get along.” Perhaps he envisions comping the high rollers for a summit at one of his Trump casinos, free rounds of golf included.
Trump stumbled further when pressed by conservative host Hugh Hewitt about his foreign policy expertise. His initial answer was largely self-congratulatory. “I will have the finest team that anybody has put together, and we will solve a lot of problems.” And then, lamely, he promised to study up: “I will know more about the problems of this world by the time I sit [in the White House].”
Bashing the Iran nuclear deal was good theater all night. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) promised to rip it “to shreds,” and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee pledged to “destroy” it. But neither of them (or anyone else onstage) offered a clue about what they would do next. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush at least had the gumption to say that “it’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement.”
The clearest foreign policy visions came from two young senators, Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.). Rubio eloquently made the traditional GOP case for robust, interventionist foreign policy. Paul was equally forceful in arguing the opposite line, that “interventions backfire.”
Carly Fiorina seemed the most intense and well-prepared debater. She rattled off a military buildup plan for 50 Army brigades, 36 Marine battalions and 300 to 350 naval ships. Whew! If she doesn’t win the White House, maybe she should apply for secretary of defense.
The crossfire onstage was a reminder that the party is still going through its own post-Iraq crisis. Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got cheers when they recalled George W. Bush’s defiant stance after Sept. 11, 2001. But Paul, Trump and Ben Carson all seemed to gain points for having opposed the Iraq war.
The jumbled GOP message on foreign policy was reassuring, in a strange way, because it underlined that there is no quick fix to the serious problems the United States has encountered abroad over the past 15 years. This Republican field wants to “keep the country safe,” in the spirit of Bush 43, without going to war again. That’s the dilemma Obama confronted.
Take Syria, a ravaged country that is hemorrhaging refugees into Europe in scenes reminiscent of the 1940s. The GOP candidates seemed to agree that the crisis is Obama’s fault, but they offered no clear alternative strategy.
A revealing moment came when Hewitt asked why Cruz, Paul and Rubio didn’t bear some responsibility for the Syria catastrophe because each indicated they would vote against allowing Obama to use force against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2013. Rubio lamely answered that he had “zero responsibility” because Obama would only have launched a “pinprick” attack. That sounded hypocritical.
Who seemed closest to a credible candidate, in this cacophony of voices? My vote would go to the underperformer of 2015, Jeb Bush. He seemed to be awakened from a months-long slumber in defending his wife from Trump’s criticism, refusing to apologize for his fluency in Spanish, standing up for his brother George, and admitting his high school marijuana use.
This un-Bush-like combativeness was accompanied by sensible, centrist policy arguments — for a high-growth economic strategy that could jump-start wages and investment, and a foreign policy that would seek to be the world’s leader, rather than its policeman. By the end, even Trump had to admit that Bush had shown new energy.