The Foreign Policy Primary: GOP Debates Reveal Strength and Weakness

There are four types of foreign policy Republicans—here are how the current crop shakes out

The candidates. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
The candidates. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Party primaries are traditionally characterized by competing candidates who express policy positions that are different shades of the same color. Prevailing party dogmas (we call them platforms) anchor candidates to positions rather than the other way round. Issues such as abortion, taxation rates, and guns—and on the foreign policy side a strong military, right to unilateral action and a chauvinistic belief in American exceptionalism—are considered Republican cant and serious candidates are expected to fall into line.

This “mosh pit” that we call the path to the Republican nomination is markedly different from past ones. For starters, we have an unwieldy number of candidates with disparate views on the home front and the world. And while there is a degree of fundamental disagreement on how the next President should govern at home, as it relates to America’s role in the world, there is a massive chasm that to paraphrase the 20th century British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, takes more than two small jumps to cross.

With the first foreign policy debate staged at the Reagan Library last night, candidates had a big stage to share their worldview. While there were the usual bromides about America’s greatness and lamentations about the sorry state of the world that will be bequeathed by the current President to the next one, most of what was said fits into one of four categories:

  1. Realist Conservatives (Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Scott Walker)—Jeb has aggressively countered the notion that he would govern as a Dubya Lite. And although his brother does cast a shadow over his candidacy, it is his father’s presidency that is a more of a realistic indicator of a Jeb presidency. For conservatives It all starts with the deep rooted belief in American exceptionalism and the assumption that when America does intervene in the world it is both just, and demanded by the national interest. Nation building qua nation building is an idea that is foreign to the realist school and Jeb has seemed to articulate as much in his tepid criticism of his brother’s Iraq policy. Under a Jeb regime, the US will seek to reconcile with their alienated allies (Israel, Eastern Europe, Gulf Arabs) and address the power vacuum in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America that was created by the Obama doctrine. Mr. Kasich would govern in much the same way: strong on deterring Russia and China from flexing their expansionist muscles, disparaging of the deal with Iran – preferring a policy of sticks to carrots, and supportive of sending US troops into Iraq to destroy ISIS and then getting out.
  2. Neoconservatives (Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Lindsay Graham, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina)—It is a testament to the neoconservative movement that it can boast of having the largest stable of philosophical sympathizers. If one can judge a candidate by his advisors then Rubio has firmly aligned himself within the neoconservative camp. And in piecing together their various musings on America’s role in the world, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie are passengers on the same ship. Suspicious of supranational organizations and multilateral interventions, the Neocon candidate believes that because America is exceptional it has a moral obligation to export its values overseas and to intervene in conflict zones that don’t necessarily impact its national interest. For Lindsay Graham and his ilk a strong military is a must, and since the use of force must be wielded more liberally, the bigger the military the better. In fact, it seems that the slightest provocation (the US Soccer Team receiving a poor seed in the World Cup)
    Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina fields questions from the press following a presidential forum hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, OH. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
    Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina fields questions from the press, August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, OH. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    sends Mr. Graham into war footing. Israel has both a strategic and spiritual kinship with the US and as such must be given “special relationship status,” and in line with that a rapprochement with Netanyahu will be high on the agenda. South America and Cuba, particularly for Mr. Rubio, will be an area of focus and much like Eastern Europe and the Gulf, Mr. Rubio will expend energy in reconciling with allies and confronting enemies. Fiorina, who stole the show last night, demonstrated a command of foreign policy and defense minutiae that was Kissingeresque (Im not even sure Generals walking the halls of the Pentagon could fire off the precise number of brigades, battalions, and weapons systems that Ms. Fiorina insisted need to be deployed immediately to defeat ISIS). And while it wasn’t totally clear where she falls on the neo-con/conservative spectrum, Ms. Fiorina did frame a few of her proposals in language that evokes a neo-con worldview.

  3. Rejectionists (Rand Paul)—I purposefully don’t use the term isolationist because it is no longer possible to be isolated in an age of globalization, interconnected economies, and mass adoption of communication technologies. Rand Paul will have as much success at getting the US to recede from the world stage as he will have at demanding that Americans turn in flat screens for black and white tvs and Iphones for rotary ones. Still, Rand Paul is unabashedly America First and has proudly articulated a preference for a retrenchment of power and a rejection (hence rejectionist) of America’s traditional role as a global superpower. Much to Mr. Paul’s chagrin, rumors of an isolationist trend among the GOP electorate are unfounded and as a result his views haven’t found much traction. For Rand, the constitution (or to put it more precisely, his reading of the constitution) must come first, which means that drones, foreign aid and domestic surveillance to root out terrorism all have to go. The Randian world view is that Interventions are a dangerous cycle as they never work, only create more enemies and then demand even more interventions. At least Paul is consistent which is more than can be said about the next group.
  4. No Clue (Donald Trump, Ben Carson) – This is not the place to pass judgment on the Donald’s overall pack-leading candidacy but, unless you count immigration as a foreign policy issue, Mr. Trump hasn’t yet uttered a substantive word on foreign policy. Like Dr. Carson, Mr. Trump believes America is great, President Obama has ruined the world and we are getting bullied by the Chinese and Russians.


Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

The Foreign Policy Primary: GOP Debates Reveal Strength and Weakness