The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”
This manifesto won’t get much coverage in the media right now, specifically because it is aimed more at President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than at any Republican primary candidate. But its consensus articulation in the first debate clearly sets the stage for a general election showdown that will feature very distinct visions of foreign policy. So it is worth understanding even at this early stage just what this manifesto is and how it might fare in the real world if one of its many adherents in the Republican field should gain the White House.
Strength through simplicity; weakness through stupidity
As with any campaign manifesto worth its salt, this one is clear and simple. It holds that the reason for the disorder in the world today and the consequent loss of American standing and security is that the Obama administration has been weak. By favoring diplomacy over force, it has demonstrated weakness to our enemies; by reducing military expenditures, it has fostered weakness, and by failing to support America’s allies, it has conveyed weakness to the world. The corrective is obvious: Elect someone who understands the value of strength. A Republican president would build up the military, broaden the war against Islamic State group (or ISIS) and start a new one against Iran if necessary, and only then negotiate from a position of strength. A few sound bites from the debate make these points:
Ted Cruz: “We need a new commander in chief that will stand up to our enemies, and that will have credibility…”
Donald Trump: “This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody… we need strength.”
Scott Walker: “You know, Putin believes in the old Lenin adage: you probe with bayonets. When you find mush, you push. When you find steel, you stop. Under Obama and Clinton, we found a lot of mush over the last two years. We need to have a national security that puts steel in front of our enemies…We define steel.”
Carly Fiorina: “When America does not lead, the world is a dangerous and a tragic place. This is a bad deal. Obama broke every rule of negotiation.”
Jeb Bush: “Barack Obama became president, and he abandoned Iraq. He left, and when he left al-Qaida was done for. ISIS was created because of the void that we left, and that void now exists as a caliphate the size of Indiana.”
Chris Christie: “The first thing we need to do to make America stronger is to strengthen our military…Those are the kind of things that are going to send a clear message around the world.”
It’s capability, stupid
Even if this manifesto was created for the purposes of the campaign, a new Republican president would be stuck with it in office. So how is it likely to fare?
Alas, not well, in my view. Strength of purpose is obviously helpful in foreign policy, but it can’t make up forever for lack of capability. To paraphrase, the old military adage, “amateurs talk strategy; professional study capacity.” All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.
Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.
The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.
A new Republican president might enter office imbued with a sense of his own personal capacity to overcome the tides of history. But they will quickly wash him away as they did his Republican predecessor. The only question is how many mistakes he will make in foreign policy and how much damage he will do before reality intrudes. As another advocate of strength, Mao Zedong, put it, the Republican foreign policy manifesto is “swollen in head, weak in legs, sharp in tongue but empty in belly.”