The Presidential Candidates Need Foreign Policy Help


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Who would help President Donald Trump as commander-in-chief? It’s a question War on the Rocks helped to ask back in March. Now, as observers are increasingly contending with the real prospect of a Trump nomination, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reports many GOP foreign policy professionals “are not sure how they would respond to a call from Trump.” Here’s what one anonymous Republican official admitted:

“I would never say never, but it’s hard to envision myself,” the former official said. Many of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements — retreating from NATO, targeting the families of terror suspects and tearing up existing trade deals, among others — are anathema to the Republican national security mainstream.

In any case, the former official said, “I haven’t been asked.”

It’s worth noting that the only person in the article who did not outright reject working for Trump chose to so without revealing his or her identity. As for one of the eight known members of Trump’s team, George Papadopoulous, he defended his campaign role with a question:

“Is it true that the ‘establishment GOP foreign policy advisers,’ many of whom I’ve met, are confused why the presidential front runner chose a group of experts with regional, on the ground experience, with track records of getting deals done with governments, instead of relying on their failed policies they likely devised at Starbucks on Pennsylvania Ave? If so, I am very shocked.”

Least. Surprising. Comment. Ever.

Anyway, Mark Dubowitz, who helps run the Republican-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies, makes an interesting point about the potential foreign policy pool available to Trump:

But beyond those who have said they would never work for Trump, “there are hundreds and hundreds left who have stayed silent.” For many, [Dubowtiz] said, self-interest may triumph over ideology if and when it becomes clear Trump will be the GOP nominee.

So, at this point it seems Trump must win the GOP nomination for foreign policy elites to come out of the woodwork and join his advisory group. Expect a lot more on this around July.

Where does Ted Cruz’s foreign policy fit? It appears it’s hard to pin down, according to a report by the New York Times’ Matt Flegenheimer. Indeed, Cruz has been “a little hard to find on the spectrum” of typical conservative foreign policy, noted Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the report.

“The latest incarnation for him is a sort of realist school of overwhelming military force, but he’s constantly criticizing nation-building,” he continued. “I have a feeling he’s more of an amateur in that area.”

Harsh. But there is certainly some anger toward Cruz on the foreign policy front. After all, he’s been critical of neoconservatives and says he falls “somewhere in between” a Rand-Paul-like libertarian philosophy and a John-McCain-like hawkish worldview. And of course, Cruz did not pick the most well-respected foreign policy team. It also didn’t help that he doesn’t seem to grasp the nature of carpet-bombing.

Regardless, if Cruz were to win the Republican nomination “he would be the most conservative presidential nominee in at least a half-century, perhaps to the right of Barry Goldwater.” Should he be elected to the White House, then, it wouldn’t be surprising if we saw a completely out-of-the-ordinary foreign policy from President Cruz. It would be historical for sure, and not just because he might make sand glow.

Another Bernie Sanders gaffe. This time it is about Saudi Arabia and the president’s trip there. Here’s the pertinent section from Sanders’ interview with CNN’s Dana Bash:

BASH: Let’s talk about something in the news that will be on your plate as a sitting U.S. senator. Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars of American assets if Congress allows the Saudi government … to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the 9/11 attacks. …

SANDERS: Well, I need more information before I can give you a decision.

But, clearly, I have, as you have heard me say, a whole lot of concerns about the role that Saudi Arabia has been playing for many, many years, not just the individuals who came from Saudi Arabia who attacked us on 9/11, but their support for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The Saudi family is a huge family, many hundreds, if not thousands of people in the ruling family worth many hundreds of billions of dollars.

BASH: But if I may, Senator, in general, should Saudi Arabia be — should it be possible to hold them liable in U.S. courts?

SANDERS: Well, you’re going to hear — you’re asking me to give you a decision about a situation and a piece of legislation that I am not familiar with at this point.

MSNBC’s Steve Benen points out why this is a problem:

I can appreciate why this may seem like a fairly obscure issue, but the legislation Sanders was asked about was on the front page of the New York Times yesterday morning and the front page of the New York Daily News on Saturday.

It’s not unfair to ask a sitting senator about legislation pending in the Senate that’s quite literally front-page news.

I agree. Add this to Sanders’ disastrous New York Daily News interview and the foreign-policy mojo isn’t flowing from the Sanders camp. Luckily for Sanders …

Do the candidates care about foreign policy? David Graham asks an important question in The Atlantic, and he believes they don’t. After all, there’s one former secretary of state left and the rest of the candidates have not really impressed on foreign policy issues. And, to be sure, this is odd.

The indifference is all the more surprising because poll after poll shows that Americans put national security, terrorism, and foreign policy near the tops of their lists for the most crucial issues facing the nation in the 2016 contest. And two Republican contenders for president were arguably brought down in part by their foreign-policy weakness. The once-high flying candidacies of Scott Walker and Ben Carson were brought low in part by bad answers on global questions, though in each case there are plenty of other culprits. The most well-read Republican contender on foreign policy was likely Senator Marco Rubio. Democrats guffawed when he said so, pointing out that his resume amounted to one term on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but in comparative perspective, he wasn’t wrong. It also didn’t help him.

This seems to fall back into the old adage that foreign policy cannot make a presidency, but it can certainly break one. Foreign policy will likely become a greater deal during the general election. But for now, domestic concerns dominate the primaries. Plus, only about “10 to 12 million” Americans will have picked their party’s candidate, which is not representative of the United States, including those who might care about foreign policy. Watch this space.

Please, end the Mad-Dog-ness! I’ve devoted two (two!) #NatSec2016 newsletters to the pipe dream that former Marine Gen. Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis will run as a third-party contender and win the presidency. Thanks, John. Let’s make it a third, and hope this is it.

In a smart piece for Foreign Policy, Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary show us why Mattis, and post-9/11 generals, are unlikely to win the presidency anytime soon:

Even if he [Mattis] or another former general decided to run, the nature of the wars waged since 9/11 all but rule out the possibility of a “white knight” military hero transforming the presidential race and ultimately winning the nation’s highest office. The campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria over the past 15 years have produced ambiguous outcomes while offering no clear victories. That means the country has no transcendent war hero on a par with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last general to hang up his uniform and win the White House — more than 60 years ago.

“It takes a certain kind of war to make a general a president,” said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, former senior White House official, and Foreign Policy contributor. “You’ve got to have a decisive victory.”

That’s a great point. Our modern wars are messy and are fought by a small percentage of our population — and, depending who you ask, we lost them. No particular military leader stands out, except for maybe Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, but they have some, er, electability problems (check the links). That may explain why only two professional military leaders became the country’s chief executive since the Civil War: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant. They got be president because:

Both Grant and Eisenhower were indisputable war heroes in the public’s imagination, household names praised for leading their armies to glory during wars that posed direct existential threats to the United States. The Civil War and World War II mobilized and galvanized every segment of American society, with practically every citizen fighting or having a relative, friend, or neighbor who was involved.

No military leaders we have today fit that grandiose bill. Sure the country has had presidents who’ve served in the military — George H.W. Bush was the last one to have been in combat — but none of them have anywhere near as close to the acclaim garnered by Eisenhower and Grant.

Noonan and co. are desperately trying to reverse this trend by putting Mattis behind the resolute desk. This history lesson should put this idea to rest, resolutely.

Bonus: While few people can argue with Mattis’ impressive record as a leader of America’s warfighters, what do we actually know about his political positions on a range of non-security issues, or even about his ideological worldview? Very little, says Bryan McGrath here at War on the Rocks, and that’s why he warns his fellow Republicans against throwing their support behind Mattis as a savior for the GOP.

Weirdest article of the week. The honor goes to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin. Loyal #NatSec2016 readers will know I featured an article of hers last week with praise, so putting her here is a bit of a surprise, even for me.

But in my opinion her piece deserved to be in this section. She claims that “it isn’t entirely clear” what Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would be. After all, “her role as secretary [of state] was constrained by the fact that during her tenure, foreign policy decision-making was closely held by the Obama White House.” Ok, fair. But then:

Clinton sees America as the leading global actor, without apologies, and wants to use all the tools of American power — including force, in collaboration with allies, if there is a compelling national interest and all other tools have failed.

Whereas an aide famously described Obama as “leading from behind,” Clinton is clearly eager to lead from the front.

But during a conference call with the Inquirer’s Editorial Board this week, when I asked her to describe her foreign policy philosophy, her emphasis was on diplomacy. “When I became secretary of state,” she said, “I chose to say I wanted to practice smart power, meaning I wanted to elevate diplomacy and development [alongside] defense, because I thought the Bush administration militarized our foreign policy to our detriment.”

So … why is Rubin confused? In 2009, during Clinton’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing, she said:

I believe that American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted. We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.

In 2010, Clinton wrote a Foreign Affairs article entitled “Leading Through Civilian Power,” where she doubled down on that idea in the second paragraph:

I began my tenure as U.S. Secretary of State by stressing the need to elevate diplomacy and development alongside defense — a “smart power” approach to solving global problems. To make that approach succeed, however, U.S. civilian power must be strengthened and amplified. It must, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has argued in these pages, be brought into better balance with U.S. military power.

Seems to me like Clinton has been pretty clear and consistent about her foreign policy. She’s into using all elements of national power and would like diplomacy and development to be used as tools of statecraft alongside defense.

There’s no question that Bernie Sanders has pushed her to the left during the primaries, getting her to apologize for her vote on the Iraq War, among other developments. Still, as Rubin says, “What one can say is that Clinton has far more foreign policy experience and a deeper network of advisers than any of her competitors. And the foreign policy alternatives to her candidacy are slim.”

That, for sure, is true. But to say we do not know what Clinton’s foreign policy might look like — or at least that we do not know her worldview — is weird.


Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense policy, strategy, and now focuses primarily on the presidential election and foreign policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.