Foreign Policy At The Republican Debate

With the exception of Rand Paul, the foreign policy discussion at last night's debate was about as bad as you'd expect.

Republican Debate September 16 Two

Last night’s Republican debate was different from the August 6th debate in that the candidates spent far more time on foreign policy and national security matters than they did the first time they met. The substance of what most of these candidates said is largely what you would have expected from a Republican debate on these topics, but as The New York Times notes there were some interesting contrasts:

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates vying for attention and debating points on Wednesday night focused more intently than in their first debate on the dangers facing the United States from a violent and chaotic world. But they could not agree on whether the way to deal with America’s adversaries was to engage them, or issue ultimatums to President Vladimir V. Putin ofRussia and tear up the nuclear accord with Iran.

The arguments that began in the opening hour of the debate and flared up again toward the end illuminated a fundamental divide in theRepublican Party. Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida talked about the need to keep America’s closest allies together in dealing with adversaries from Tehran to Moscow, and work with them to enforce the nuclear accord — even though both of them said they believed it was a bad deal for the United States.

“We are stronger when we work with” allies in Europe, Mr. Kasich argued.

Arguing for a more forceful response were Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Ms. Fiorina made the case for more ships, a larger Army and restoring missile defenses to Poland. “We need the strongest military on the face of the planet and everyone needs to know it,” Ms. Fiorina argued. Her advocacy for what seemed to be the core of Ronald Reagan’s defense policy drew applause from a crowd that was staring at the artifacts of his presidency at the setting for the debate, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Mr. Cruz mocked Mr. Kasich for what he argued was naïveté about Iran’s intentions and promised to rip up the Iranian nuclear accord on his first days in office — though he said nothing about how that would free the Iranians to do the same and resume uranium enrichment.

But the biggest promises of American muscle-flexing came, in the first debate of the evening, the so-called undercard, when Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina repeated his vow to send troops to take on the Islamic State — and keep them there for as long as it takes to defeat the militants.

It was not a position that was endorsed by the 11 candidates who faced off against one another in the second debate later in the evening.

The policy disagreements that emerged during the debate reflected the internal division within the Republican Party over whether to resume the interventionism that the United States became known for after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or to withdraw from the role as the world’s policeman unless America’s vital interests were immediately threatened.

The extent to which there were actually disagreements between the candidates is, to be honest, somewhat exaggerated by the Times in this piece. It’s true that several of the candidates in the undercard debate objected to Lindsey Graham’s reckless call for as many as 10,000 American ground troops in Syria and Iraq to fight ISIS, and that Bush and Kasich took a far different position on the Iran deal than Ted Cruz and the others, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule. With the exception of Rand Paul, who seemed to harken back to many of his non-interventionist positions at several points during the debate, all of the candidates that were on the stage for both debates basically agree on the essential elements when it comes to foreign policy. They all oppose the Iran Nuclear Deal, including Rand Paul, and only differ on the question of whether they would immediately repudiate the deal upon being elected President or wait to repudiate the deal until they’ve actually talked to our allies in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. They all support the idea of increased American involvement in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS. The all slavishly pay homage to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notwithstanding the fact that American interests in the Middle East are not always compatible with Israel and the United States has far more important allies elsewhere in the world. And, they all advocate the idea of being “tougher” toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, although Donald Trump appears to think that he can somehow intimidate Putin into ending his belligerence in Ukraine and elsewhere. And, again with the exception of Rand Paul, they all still think that the Iraq War was a good idea, that the only flaw in American intervention in Libya is that it wasn’t massive enough, and that we could have solved the crisis in Syria by attacking Bashar Assad and taking him out of power, even though that would have created a power vaccum that would have obviously been filled by ISIS. To a large part then, each of these candidates continues to hold onto the same flawed foreign policy ideas that have been part of Republican ideology since the Obama Administration.

Daniel Larison was similarly not pleased with the candidates take on foreign policy:

U.S. presidents throughout the Cold War were frequently unable to prevent or “roll back” Moscow’s actions, and they understood that attempting to do so would be extremely risky. Since the end of the Cold War, most of our political leaders have forgotten that the U.S. is not able to compel other states to behave as we would like, and they prefer not to acknowledge that other states have their own objectives that don’t depend on what the U.S. is or isn’t doing. Graham was trying to score a partisan point by contrasting Obama and Reagan, but he was also displaying the arrogance that afflicts enthusiasts of U.S. hegemony.

Though he is clueless on policy substance, Trump labors under a similar delusion. He proved this when he asserted that Russian actions were the result of a lack of “respect” for Obama, and that once a U.S. president is “respected” all these problems would be sorted out. Trump’s “respect” rhetoric functions in exactly the same way as the foreign policy pundit’s invocation of “resolve”: it is the intangible thing that the U.S. always needs to have more of and which will fix any given crisis. It is a substitute for a coherent policy alternative, because the person insisting on “respect” or “resolve” usually doesn’t have one or doesn’t want to describe it for fear of horrifying the audience.

The terrible state of Republican foreign policy was on full display last night, and I imagine the Democratic candidates cannot believe their party’s luck that their opponents are happily embracing such hard-line and dangerous policies.

Larison’s analysis, more which you can read at the link, is spot on. With the exception of a few good points from Rand Paul, which were largely lost in the storm, what we got was basically just a repetition of the same hard-line interventionist foreign policy that we’ve heard from Republicans for years now. Not only are the policies that these candidates are advocating potentially very dangerous, but they seem to be based in a view of the world that simply does not square with reality. Several candidates last night claimed that Obama was largely responsible for Russian expansion into Ukraine and its recent decent to provide renewed military aid to Syria, and that a “tougher” U,S. President would be able to contain Putin regardless of what he wanted to do. The reality, of course, is that there was very little that the United States could have done to prevent either Russia’s seizure of Crimea and aid to rebels in east Ukraine or its decision to develop an even closer relationship with Syria. As Larison points out, successive Presidents during the Cold War were unable to do this at a time when the United States had massive military forces within miles of the border with the Warsaw Pact. There’s no reason to believe that this could be done now, especially given the ethnic issues that are a large part of the Ukraine situation and Russia’s long history in Syria that predates President Obama’s Administration by decades. This kind of rhetoric evidences a serious misunderstanding of history and how the world works.

The Republican candidates are unlikely to be hurt very much by anything they said about foreign policy last night. If anything, those candidates who took the most hardline approach are likely to see their political fortunes aided to some degree simply because the positions they’re taking are consistent with what most Republicans believe. The evidence, in fact, would show that the candidates who are more likely to be harmed by their foreign policy positions are those who deviate from the hardline orthodoxy, which is something that Rand Paul and his declining poll numbers can attest to. Beyond the Republican Party, though, views like this aren’t likely to help the eventual nominee win much support from the middle of the road voters who will decide this election in state’s like Ohio and Florida, although the fact that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy positions aren’t very different from those of most Republicans may blunt the impact of that somewhat. Beyond the political consequences, though, last night’s debate was further evidence that the GOP remains in the grip of the same foreign policy ideas that led the Bush Administration down its disastrous path. Until that changes, it’s not clear that any Republican should be trusted as Commander in Chief.


FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Campaign 2016, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    Beyond the typical bellicose interventionist spiel and the need to boost up the defense budget is no word on how to pay for the immediate costs of those interventions nor any indication of how to pay for 50 or more years of maimed and burned veterans that will result from those needless adventures.

    I’m sure they are getting into a tizzy abut Russia moving into Syria. If the US was smart (a questionable assumption), we would encourage the Russians to move into the Middle East while we get the heck out. That will take care of the Russian “threat”.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I agree, count me among those whose reaction to Russians in Syria was not fear but laughter. Jump on in there, Ivan, I’m sure the water’s perfect. Then, why not try Afghanistan again? Or Somalia? So many fun places around the world. You Russkis want Congo?

  3. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: I heard somewhere (can’t remember where) that the Russian FSB is surreptitiously facilitating the movement of Chechen Islamists to ISIL. Now they are helping Assad to fight ISIL, killing off their problem children. Kind of diabolical, if true. Though the potential for unintended consequences is high.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    Give me a break Jeb – GWB kept us safe in spite of the fact that 911 happened on his watch and his administration ignored all the intelligence..

  5. Moosebreath says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    “Give me a break Jeb – GWB kept us safe in spite of the fact that 911 happened on his watch and his administration ignored all the intelligence.”

    Yep. There’s a tendency among Republicans to pretend Bush the Younger was inaugurated on September 12, 2001.

  6. M. Bouffant says:

    Teddy Roosevelt, 2015 edition:
    “Shout, rant, rave & threaten at the top of your voice, then flail about aimlessly w/ a stick so big you can’t control it & you’ll probably hurt yourself with it.”

  7. DrDaveT says:

    With the exception of a few good points from Rand Paul, which were largely lost in the storm […]

    Well, sort of. It’s not so much that Paul made good points, as that he didn’t say anything totally barking mad. In the coal cellar, one match looks like a bonfire.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    Well, what do you expect of a bunch of politicians who claim that vaccines cause autism and refuse to believe in evolution?

    There’s REAL reality, and there’s “Republican reality”, formed of whatever story they want to make up.

  9. Jc says:

    Very aggressive hawkish attitudes coming from 10 people whose combined military service years = 0. Very Bush like, push all your chips in the pot, then look at your cards. Rubio has to be the fakest…sad.

  10. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: No, no. Don’t think about Afghanistan at all. It was just an aberration. I’m sure this time will be different, eh?

  11. Tillman says:

    Rubio remains unseen in both this post and the article it links to at the Times.

    Starting to think he’s taking the invisible primary seriously.

  12. Grewgills says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    Yeah, but other than that…

  13. Slugger says:

    The most recent addition to the roll of nuclear armed nations was No Korea in 2006. If only we’d had a firm, tough Republican president at that time, this would have been prevented. Firm and tough is the answer to all problems.

  14. Stonetools says:

    although the fact that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy positions aren’t very different from those of most Republicans may blunt the impact of that somewhat.

    Nonsense. Clinton may be slightly more hawkish than Obama, but she isn’t barking mad. She supports the Iran deal, for example. Moreover, she heads a Democratic Party which will restrain-not facilitate, her hawkish tendencies. But hey, feel free to continue to indulge your Clinton Derangement condition. Like it or not, Doug, there will be a big ( maybe even YOOOGE) difference in foreign policy between a Democratic and Republican administration. Keep that in mind as you decide on your vote next year.