Conservative national security hawks should be rooting for Hillary Rodham Clinton to throw her hat in the ring in 2016. That’s because a Clinton campaign would spark the first major foreign policy battle in a presidential election in decades — and the first GOP primary fight over national security since the 1970s.
Polls show that just 2 percent of Americans say foreign policy is their top priority — far behind the economy, jobs and health care. But if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, then the GOP will have to run against her record — and central to that record was her tenure as secretary of state.
Even Clinton’s most ardent defenders can’t name a single accomplishment she had during her four years at the helm of the State Department. And given Benghazi, don’t look for Clinton to brag, as President Obama did in 2012, about how Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is on the run.
But Republicans can’t simply criticize Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi debacle. They will have to present a broad critique of her foreign policy leadership — from her failed “reset” with Russia, to her calling Syrian dictator Bashar Assad a “reformer,” to the Obama administration’s failure to impose meaningful sanctions on Iran, to its general inability to grasp significance of Arab uprisings in the Middle East, and to its more than $1 trillion in defense cuts that are decimating our military.
To deliver that critique, Republicans will have to explain what they would do differently. And that means, before Republicans can pick a foreign policy fight with Clinton, they will first have to have an intra-Republican foreign policy fight — potentially the biggest since 1976, when a conservative insurgent named Ronald Reagan took on the Ford-Kissinger policy of “détente.”
Back then, Kissinger declared that Reagan was “trigger-happy” and accused him of “inciting hawkish audiences with his demagoguery.” But with the help of Sen. Jesse Helms, Reagan won an upset victory in the North Carolina primary by accusing Kissinger and Ford of presiding over the “collapse of American will and the retreat of American power.” At the party’s convention in Kansas City, Reagan won a fight to include a “Morality in Foreign Policy” plank in the GOP platform, which declared that “the goal of Republican foreign policy is the achievement of liberty under law.”
Now, 40 years later, the GOP needs to decide whether those principles still guide the Republican approach to the world in the 21st century. There are many unresolved questions within the GOP when it comes foreign policy and national security — and the 2016 GOP primaries will be where those questions get resolved. Consider:
When it comes to the Arab Spring, are Republicans for “stability” and standing with “friendly dictators”? Or are they in favor of the spread of freedom in the Middle East?
Is the problem in Syria that Obama drew a “red line” and did not enforce it? Or should he have never drawn a red line in the first place? Are Republicans in favor of Assad’s removal, or do they want him to stay?
Will the GOP critique of Benghazi be that Ambassador Christopher Stevens should never have been in Benghazi? Or was the problem that Obama was “leading from behind” and did not have enough forces in the region to respond when our ambassador was in trouble? Should we have done more to stabilize post-Gaddafi Libya? Or should we have never intervened at all, and left Moammar Gaddafi alone to slaughter his people?
In Afghanistan, would Republicans continue the Obama drawdown with the goal of a complete U.S. withdrawal, as in Iraq? Or do they envision a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan similar to our long-term presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany?
What is the GOP position on drone strikes? Do Republicans believe that it is lawful to kill a U.S. citizen who betrays his country and fights for the enemy in a time of war? Or do they favor a law enforcement approach to terrorism that would require his arrest and conviction in a court of law?
Is the GOP for or against National Security Agency surveillance? Will Republicans reverse the Obama defense cuts so that we can maintain adequate military force to deter our enemies and protect our friends? Or will the GOP continue cutting defense to reduce the national debt?
Do Republicans believe that “the tide of war is receding”? Or are dangerous enemies still actively plotting to attack us? Does the GOP want to see America actively engaged in shaping world events? Or do Republicans agree with Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that the time has come to step back from the world and “focus on nation-building here at home”?
These are just a few of the critical questions Republicans will have to settle. Foreign policy will be central to the 2016 campaign, and Clinton is vulnerable. But before Republicans attack the Clinton record, they have to decide what they believe — so they know from which direction to attack.