Foreign Policy Questions For GOP Candidates

[ Posted Thursday, February 19th, 2015 – 18:12 UTC ]

Jeb Bush gave a speech this week that was supposed to lay out his foreign policy ideas. The speech itself fell far short of this goal, according to most who bothered to listen to it. Bush did announce his foreign policy advisory team -- which looks a whole lot like his brother's, with a sprinkling of his father's advisors added into the mix. But the entire exercise left many questions unanswered.

I don't mean to single Bush out, here. At least he's talking about foreign policy, which is more than most of the Republican candidates can claim, at this early point. But sooner or later the discussion will get wider within the party, and what I'm hoping is that we'll eventually get some answers to the questions that remain. I should also state up front that I certainly don't have the answers to all these questions either, but then again I am not running for president.

I fully expect that foreign policy won't be that contentious an issue in the Republican nomination race, however. My expectation is that most of the GOP candidates will hew pretty close to the same line as all the others. The notable exception to this groupthink will undoubtedly be Rand Paul, who should provide a convenient foil for all the other Republican presidential contenders, as he attempts to flesh out his own rather isolationist views (and perhaps mute them enough to avoid driving away too many base Republican voters). And, of course, I expect all the Republicans to largely agree that everything Barack Obama has done in the foreign policy realm is as wrong as it could be -- that's pretty much a given, from all the Republican candidates.

But the big question remains -- what would they do differently? How would America act if they were in charge compared to how we have been acting for the past six years? The answers to these questions should be forward-looking, rather than hashing out all the mistakes they think Obama has made. In other words, if Obama screwed things up so badly, how would you now change things for the better?

What, specifically, would a Republican president do in Syria and Iraq to fight the Islamic State that Obama isn't already doing? That is probably the most pressing question of all, and yet I still haven't heard a whole lot of original thinking from many Republicans on the issue. Would American ground troops be committed to the battle? How many of them would be required? What would the timetable for defeating and destroying the Islamic State be? This is perhaps the first foreign policy issue that will be hard for candidates to dodge, since Congress is about to hold a big debate on an authorization for the use of military force in the upcoming weeks. What should that authorization say? The subject will be in the news, so it may be impossible for Republican candidates to brush it off.

What would they do differently in Afghanistan and elsewhere to fight radical Islamic extremism? Would Obama's policy of drone use be continued? Expanded? Scrapped for something else altogether? Drones may be the one subject that most Republicans largely agree with Obama on, but it would still behoove the candidates to explain why they do support the program and how they would fine-tune its use.

What will American policy be on Israel and the question of Palestine? Again, other than Rand Paul, Republicans can be expected to march in lockstep on this particular issue, but beyond trying to outdo each other in their unwavering support of Israel no matter what it does, do any of the Republicans have any sort of peace plan for the Palestinian issue? My guess is that with all the Israel-supporting chest-beating, this crucial question is likely to be swept aside.

No matter what happens to the diplomatic negotiations in the next few months, Obama will provide another chance for the Republicans to talk about foreign policy, this time towards Iran. If Obama and John Kerry manage to strike a deal with Iran, will the Republicans uphold it if they get into the Oval Office? If no deal is reached, what exactly would the Republicans do? When would the bombs start dropping (to put this a bit more cynically)? What would a wider conflict with Iran -- or even an outright war -- do to America's other foreign policy in the region? How would it affect what is going on in Iraq with the Islamic State? If the candidates threaten bombs or war with Iran, how do they see it ending? Regime change? Merely destroying the Iranian nuclear sites? What happens if we can't accomplish that because they are too deeply buried? If we didn't directly bomb Iran, would we assist Israel if they decided to do so?

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is how a future Republican president would handle Vladimir Putin and the situation in Ukraine. I've heard lots of swagger when Republicans talk about how Obama should be dealing with Putin, but very few actual ideas other than sending arms to the Ukrainians. What if that doesn't work? What if Putin carves out swaths of Ukraine and declares them to now be parts of Russia? Even if the Ukrainians did push the Russians back over the border, what would a Republican president's stance on the Crimea be? Should it be returned to Ukraine? How, exactly, are we going to force Putin to do so?

On a larger scale, what would Republicans do if Putin isn't satisfied with just carving up Ukraine? What happens if he tries the same thing in the Baltic states, who are now NATO members? Would nuclear weapons be used to defend Lithuania or Latvia? Would American troops fight for the freedom of Estonia? Short of that, what would stand in Putin's way if he tried such a breathtaking land-grab? A strong talking-to by a Republican president?

These are the questions American voters really deserve answers to, from all the Republicans running for president (and, for that matter, from all the Democrats running as well). It's pretty much a given that if any Republican won (excepting, again, Rand Paul) that America's foreign policy would get a lot more belligerent than it is under President Obama. But how belligerent is that, really? What would trigger America's entry into any regional war? What would the red lines be?

If the past is any guide, many of these questions will remain unanswered, and many of them will likely go unasked during the entire campaign. Presidential candidates are always looking to avoid saying anything too contentious, and foreign policy is likely not going to be the biggest issue in the 2016 campaign, so most candidates will do their utmost to avoid giving any concrete answer to these contentious questions. The American public is not exactly in a war-making mood after almost a decade and a half of foreign wars, so the candidates will likely play it as safe as they can, uttering nebulous statements of strength without getting bogged down in any details as to what, exactly, this would mean.

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic, though. Perhaps foreign policy will emerge as a battleground among the candidates. Several of them have little experience with foreign policy matters, so the ones who are a bit more seasoned may sense an opportunity to tie their opponents in knots over these issues. Rand Paul will serve as a lightning rod for all the other Republicans on foreign policy, of course, but they may try to outdo each other in their denouncements of Paul's positions. This could lead to the candidates making more and more specific promises on foreign policy questions.

Whether it happens or not, though, American voters really do deserve a robust debate on what American foreign policy will be in the future. What Obama policies are working and will be continued or expanded? What is not working, and what are the answers to change things? We deserve answers to these questions from everyone now actively trying to become our nation's commander in chief.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


7 Comments on “Foreign Policy Questions For GOP Candidates”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    These are the questions American voters really deserve answers to, from all the Republicans running for president (and, for that matter, from all the Democrats running as well).


    This isn't a partisan issue..

    All of these questions need to be answered by potential Dem candidates as well as GOP candidates...

    CW's fair hand strikes again! :D

    And in doing so, totally negated my argument!


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    CW's fair hand strikes again! :D

    And in doing so, totally negated my argument!

    There's a lesson in that to be learned by the rest of ya... :D


  3. [3] 
    LewDan wrote:

    Seriously, you actually expect The Party of No!™ to offer specific policy alternatives?

    For six years, while they've been universal in their condemnation of Obama foreign policy, they've yet to even offer a single cogent specific criticism of any of the foreign policies they condemn. Much less any reasonable alternative. With the possible exception of "Bomb Iran. Bomb bomb Iran!"

    Their playbook only contains a handful of tactics. Reduce taxes. Deport immigrants. Eliminate regulation. Criminalize personal behavior. Kill any scary black or brown people. And tell each other how "exceptional" they are.

    There is no why, when, or where to their thinking. Only how. Republicans don't do "policy." That would require both an interest in governing and contact with reality. Republicans have neither.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Our Dangerous Historical Moment

    This is the Foreign Policy threat that ANY person wanting to be POTUS needs to address...


  5. [5] 
    LewDan wrote:

    "This is the Foreign Policy threat that ANY person wanting to be POTUS needs to address...


    Bullshit. This ain't 1932. We made Iran an enemy and empowered Muslim extremists through our own actions against oil rich Muslim nations in the name of anticommunism and capitalist greed. We destabilized the middle east empowering Iran and ISIS thanks to misguided fear, vengeance, and greed.

    In exactly the same way, and for the same reasons, the people of Germany embarked on WWII. Like us, their leaders had their own agenda, and like them we too willingly went along with it out of fear, vengeance, and greed.

    People aren't mysterious. They're just people. They don't behave any differently than we do. And WE certainly don't behave any differently than they do!

    Constantly trying to distinguish ourselves by virtue of our superiority, and exceptualism, is to guarantee we will not solve our problems. As thinking of ourselves as superior is a contributing factor in our problems. Just as trying to win a conflict by fighting the last one over again is a guaranteed strategy for failure.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    LewDan -

    To be fair, that was [to the tune of "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys]: "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran..."



  7. [7] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Before commenting on JEB Bush's Chicago speech, I wanted to examine its entirety. It's fairly hard to find a complete video or transcript of Jeb's Chicago speech of Feb. 18, but I eventually found a link at C-Span.

    A lot of the press reports focused on the malapropisms, cringe-worthy phrasings and factual memory lapses, and my impression is that the speaker did comically relieve himself regularly during the 30 min before Q&A (which JEB handled much more comfortably).

    Content wise, the speech was predictably pedestrian and easy to forget. I would summarize it as 1/3 condemnation of Obama (standard GOP Sky is Falling), 1/3 pep talk on American values (American Exceptionalism Lite), and 1/3 establishing his own foreign policy credibility (just plain light).

    JEB was trying to channel Poppy (GHWB) but presented a lot like Sloppy (GWB). I guess it's best to get these warm ups over with early , one more check mark in the do list....and in the context of the long march to nomination, no big deal. He'll get better with coaching.

    That said, the speech highlighted that exclusive of the family connections, JEB's own fluency in foreign policy is surprising weak for "the smart one." He offered no specifics about how he would fix all the problems he condemned.

    The simple fact is, governorship doesn't exercise the foreign policy muscles much. Neither does establishing branch offices in foreign countries. Bush was trying to conflate foreign trade with foreign policy. Judging from the reception, it didn't work outside the party faithful, at least not that night.

    What the speech did spotlight is that foreign policy fluency doesn't appear to be automatically passed down from father to sons. I guess things got discussed at the Bush dinner table.

    Hillary does actually have a LOT of foreign policy leadership experience. Match up the strengths at weaknesses of the two front runners and you can suss the obligatory 2016 Swift-Boating is likely to be directed at Hillary's very real record against JEB's nearly complete lack of record. Due to stylistic difficulties, this speech was a ranging shot which fizzled.

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