As the Field Narrows, Presidential Candidates talk Foreign Policy in South Carolina

February 11, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the latest edition of WOTR’s #NatSec2016 email newsletter.  If you want to get it delivered straight to your inbox each week, sign up here!


New Hampshire’s done, and it’s on to South Carolina and Nevada. There were no major surprises in either party’s battle in New England, with both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders winning and proving pre-election polling accurate. But exit polls did show that the economy was the most important issue for both Republican and Democratic voters in the Granite State. Will voters in the upcoming contests be more concerned with national security? Early signs suggest that candidates expect that to be the case, and especially among the Republican field, they’re campaigning hard on the issue.

Marco Rubio makes his foreign policy case

In the newly depleted field (farewell to Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina), Marco Rubio clearly sees Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush as his most dangerous opponents. And Eliza Collins reports in Politico that, campaigning in South Carolina, he’s making the case that none of the three have the experience to take charge of American foreign policy:

“Donald Trump has zero foreign policy experience,” Rubio told a crowd in Hilton Head. “Negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience.”

He said much the same of Bush (though with a caveat likely motivated by George W. Bush’s popularity in the state). “Jeb Bush has no foreign policy experience, period, and I’m an incredible admirer of him and his family.”

“Ted Cruz has a little bit of foreign policy experience, and it’s different than mine,” Rubio went on, before criticizing specific Cruz votes on defense spending and accusing him of supporting NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

How many foreign policy advisers does it take to become president?

If you’re Hillary Clinton, the answer is a lot, evidently. John Hudson writes for Foreign Policy: “Every day, in offices across Washington, scores of foreign-policy advisors who Hillary Clinton has never met are drafting policy memos for her that she will never read. … The group of advisors is so large, officials in the Clinton campaign cannot offer a definitive estimate of its size. ‘Several hundred’ is the stock answer. It is so decentralized, officials admit they no longer directly control its membership.”

By building such a large team, Clinton generates a degree of loyalty by creating “the illusion of inclusion,” Hudson explains. This “can make an outside expert think twice before tweeting a snarky reaction to a Clinton gaffe or offering a less-than-flattering quote to a reporter.” Moreover, the Clinton campaign appears to be making it a political issue, suggesting that her attraction of so many foreign policy wonks while Bernie Sanders struggles to name formal advisers further highlights her opponent’s complete lack of seriousness on foreign policy.

GOP field in “disarray” on national security?

Lindsey Graham was the hawk that wanted to talk details on national security. He’s out. Rand Paul was the one railing against military adventurism. He’s out. These were the two Republican candidates who had definable perspectives on national security. What’s left, argues the Center for American Progress’ Brian Katulis in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, is a GOP field trying to demonstrate toughness without actually offering specific ideas: “Candidates are trying to explain complex overseas dynamics and distinguish themselves from their opponents for audiences that may be unfamiliar with a lot of policy particulars and swayed more by tone than the underlying specifics. So far in this cycle, Republican presidential candidates have offered a lot of heated rhetoric on national security, a tactic that did not work for Mitt Romney in 2012 and that ultimately makes them sound erratic and unprepared.”

Can Sanders escape the “weak on foreign policy” narrative?

We’ve heard it regularly from Clinton and her surrogates: Sanders isn’t ready to be commander-in-chief. In the New York Times, David E. Sanger explains that the problem is pretty simple. When he gives his views, his level of understanding of the issues is questioned. So he stays quiet, but that’s even worse: “While Mr. Sanders has argued he is not an isolationist, foreign policy experts say he has yet to turn his case for nonintervention and coalition-building into a coherent strategy for containing Russia’s moves along its borders, bringing a cease-fire and political solution to Syria, enforcing the Iran nuclear deal, and handling cyberattacks from China and Russia. In fact, he has been largely silent on all those issues.”

For his part, Sanders seems to remain committed to the strategy of contending that, by virtue of her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq War, Clinton essentially loses any credibility on foreign policy issues. “As somebody who voted against the war in Iraq, who lead the opposition for the war in Iraq, lately I have been lectured on foreign policy,” he recently told a group of supporters. “The most important foreign policy issue in the modern history of this country was the war in Iraq. I was right on that issue, Hillary Clinton was wrong.”

Bush and Graham

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is hitting the campaign trail in his home state on behalf of the candidate he endorsed after dropping out of the race himself. “South Carolina has always been Jeb’s best bet.” Graham says. “It’s the one [early voting state] with the most focus on national security, and the Bush name is very big there. The military footprint in South Carolina is pretty big. … If Jeb has momentum we’ll do very well.” He went on to explain that he endorsed Bush because he’s the only candidate who “gets it” when it comes to security and defense issues.

Vera Bergengruen explains his role stumping for Bush in North Carolina newspaper The News & Observer: Graham will be “part wisecracking comedian warming up the crowd, part somber national-security hawk adding depth in that area.”

Bush and Bush

In addition to his national security bromance with Graham, Bush’s actually bro is also joining him in South Carolina. George W. Bush will make the case that a Bush 45 administration will put the most capable commander-in-chief in the Oval Office.

A radio ad featuring the former president has already hit South Carolina airwaves. In it, the candidate’s brother says of Jeb: “He respects the military. He honors their families. He can make the tough decisions to keep Americans safe and our country free. And in a time of crisis, he will be a steady hand.”

He also says that Jeb’s particular qualities — “resolve, steadiness, and a calmness necessary in a good leader” — make him well suited for the job. Interestingly, Jeb has spent weeks seeking to disprove Trump’s characterization of him as weak and “low energy.” And arguably, it’s been effective. He has campaigned and performed in recent debates with considerably more passion and enthusiasm. This ad seems to take a different approach. Instead of demonstrating Trump’s criticisms about his personality as false, it recasts them as signs that he has the necessary traits of capable and experienced leadership.

Which one is her day job?

You’ve likely heard that Ted Cruz’s senior foreign policy adviser has an impressive but unorthodox résumé. Victoria Coates holds a PhD in Italian Renaissance art and is the author of several books on art history, including David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, which she has said was “greatly enriched” by Cruz’s worldview.

Carlos Lozada, nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post, recently reviewed the book — taking what must be a unique approach for a book critic of “parsing artistic and historical interpretations for insights on Coates’s day job as the senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz.”

Senators: To the Hill!

Marco Rubio has been repeatedly hammered by his GOP opponents on the campaign trail and in debates for missing too many votes during his time in the Senate. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie both excoriated him for not showing up to work. So of course, when a vote was called this week on tougher sanctions against North Korea, he rushed back to the Capitol to add his vote to the “aye” tally. Ted Cruz did the same. Sure, both candidates’ votes were unnecessary, given that the legislation passed through the Senate 96–0. But in what is still considered by many to be a “national security” election, neither candidate could realistically skip the vote without suffering consequent attacks from their GOP primary rivals.

That’s what makes Bernie Sanders’ choice not to travel back to Washington somewhat revealing. Sure, as Seung Min Kim and Nahal Toosi point out in Politico, Sanders’ “no-show Wednesday drew attention to his vulnerabilities on foreign policy, and it was notable he missed the vote after naming North Korea a top threat to the United States during last week’s Democratic debate.” But he skipped the vote so he could keep a scheduled meeting with Al Sharpton in New York, which suggests that he considers a failure to make inroads among minority voters to be more damaging to his effort to defeat Hillary Clinton than the ongoing, withering attacks he’s facing on his lack of interest in foreign policy issues.

The Trump Doctrine?

Is there any guiding philosophy to Donald Trump’s foreign policy views? Writing for Vox, Zack Beauchamp says there isn’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to discern just how a President Trump would act on the most important security challenges the United States faces: “Some observers have tried to identify something like a Trump doctrine, a unifying set of beliefs that would govern his actions. But as best anyone can tell, there is no such thing. … But while Trump may lack an ideology, he definitely has policy views on key issues such as Russia, China, and ISIS. Some are nationalist, some economic nationalist, some more dovish, and some defy categorization. Many of these ideas track with what he’s said about foreign policy for years. Put together, they’re an eclectic plan to take US policy and put it on a totally new course — often in some fairly radical, and fairly scary, ways.”

Incidentally, Trump has also said that he’s finally going to reveal the list of people advising him on foreign policy, promising in an interview with Fox News host Martha MacCallum that he’ll do so “in about two weeks.” For the record, he did say five months ago that he was going to announce his advisers “very soon,” so maybe it’s best not to hold our breath. Advisers or no, he’s confident: “I think I know more about foreign policy than anybody running.”

Webb again? Nope, false alarm

Jim Webb is in Texas today to speak at the Dallas World Affairs Council. He was invited there to discuss what he considers the “five most important principles for foreign policy.” Ahead of the speech, a local CBS affiliate set off a minor media firestorm by reporting that Webb might announce that he will revive his campaign in an independent bid for the White House. While the particular upheaval of the 2016 election cycle has left open speculation that a third-party candidacy could be mounted, such an undertaking by Webb would seem a doomed enterprise. And yet, another candidate who takes national security issues as seriously as Webb does would be no bad thing.

Alas, it seems some Dallas reporters got ahead of themselves and Webb won’t run (again), after all. For now, our options remain the same.


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore