Foreign policy and the presidential election: The Republicans


Image credit: CC-BY-ND—2.0 | | ABC/Ida Mae Astute

This blog is the second in a four-part series analyzing the role of foreign policy in the 2016 presidential election.

In an earlier post, I discussed the relatively minor role foreign policy has played in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Republican primary was another kettle of fish.

All the Republican candidates were critical, sometimes harshly, of President Obama’s conduct of foreign affairs. This is hardly surprising. Criticizing the president of the other party is, after all, a staple of political campaigns. Moreover, there is fertile ground for such criticism. Much of the Middle East has descended into chaos since 2011; recent attacks in the U.S. and in Europe have driven home the threat of international terrorism; refugee flight has destabilized the Middle East and prompted political backlash in Europe; and the festering challenge of Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine gives no signs of going away. Moreover, foreign policy is in some ways the Obama administration’s Achilles’ heel. Public approval of Obama’s foreign policy runs a good 10 percentage points less than his overall rating.

There was nothing particularly new in the Republican candidates’ critique of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs. The Republican Party and the mainstream conservative movement have assailed the administration since very nearly the moment he assumed office. Obama has been routinely accused of fecklessness and a willingness to disregard, if not betray, our allies (especially Israel). These accusations have only continued to rise in recent years as Syria and Iraq have descended into civil war. The administration’s response has been seen by most on the right (and among some liberal interventionists as well) as a series of belated half-measures that reveal an unwillingness to recognize, much less counter, threats to our position in the Middle East and, indeed, elsewhere. Criticism of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was and remains the object of vociferous criticism.

At times during the Republican primary, this critique of Obama’s purported weakness prompted a remarkable bellicosity. Sen. Ted Cruz’s call for carpet bombing and Trump’s comments on torture are two much-publicized (and much-criticized) cases in point. But whatever the temperature of their rhetoric, Republican candidates were unified both in their critique of Obama’s foreign policy and in a call for greater American leadership — i.e., action — in the Middle East and elsewhere.

While the Republican primary revealed a largely uniform critique of Obama’s foreign policy, it also exposed genuine differences in the candidates’ views of international affairs. Both Trump and Cruz, for instance, repudiated nation building and showed a willingness to break with neoconservative orthodoxy on the role of U.S. foreign policy in promoting democracy. Trump went so far as to condemn our invasion of Iraq in 2003, breaking a long-standing Republican shibboleth. The embodiment of neoconservative orthodoxy — Sen. Marco Rubio — went down to defeat. Rubio’s neoconservative views were almost certainly not the cause of his failure. But, against Trump and Cruz, they were not enough to save his campaign, either.

Which brings us to Donald J. Trump, presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the subject of my next post.

Joe Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker Fellow at the Baker Institute. From 1979 to 1993, he was a career diplomat with the U.S. State Department, serving in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.