Foreign Policy Reemerging With a Vengeance in 2016

As foreign crises worsen, prospective presidential candidates are becoming born-again hawks.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 07: Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves the event 'Equality for Women is Progress for All' at the United Nations on March 7, 2014 in New York City. The event was part of the United Nations International Women's Day, which is celebrated tomorrow, March 8.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
March 26, 2014, 5:01 p.m.

Take a look at Amer­ic­an pub­lic opin­ion on for­eign policy, and it’s clear that the Amer­ic­an in­stinct is to avoid in­volve­ment in over­seas con­flicts.

A new CBS News poll, con­duc­ted last week, showed few­er than one-third of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve the U.S. has a re­spons­ib­il­ity to “do something” about Rus­sia and Ukraine, barely high­er than the 26 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans who be­lieved the U.S. should in­volve it­self in Syr­ia last Septem­ber. Only 36 per­cent said the U.S. should take the lead in solv­ing in­ter­na­tion­al con­flicts — a far cry from the 48 per­cent plur­al­ity who agreed with the state­ment in April 2003, dur­ing the Ir­aq War.

The num­bers are con­sist­ent with the tend­ency for Amer­ic­ans to be much more con­cerned with do­mest­ic is­sues than those abroad — at least un­til there’s a crisis point. The growth of al-Qaida at­trac­ted little at­ten­tion from voters dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion un­til 9/11 happened. After that, ter­ror­ism and for­eign policy landed at the top of the Amer­ic­an pri­or­ity list.

But pay closer at­ten­tion to the chan­ging rhet­or­ic from the lead­ing 2016 pres­id­en­tial con­tenders from both parties, and it’s clear they’re hedging their bets against the polls, an­ti­cip­at­ing the U.S. may well be headed in­to crisis mode. Hil­lary Clin­ton, Marco Ru­bio, and even Rand Paul have all soun­ded a more hawk­ish tone in the last month as Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion con­tin­ues un­abated in Ukraine. Mean­while, the pro­spects for cur­tail­ing Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar am­bi­tions aren’t look­ing prom­ising, the civil war in Syr­ia rages on, and Venezuela is awash in vi­ol­ence with­in our own hemi­sphere.

Pres­id­ent Obama may be re­spond­ing to pub­lic opin­ion by pre­fer­ring dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tions and an in­ter­na­tion­al con­sensus over uni­lat­er­al Amer­ic­an ac­tions, but his ap­prov­al rat­ings on hand­ling for­eign policy have cratered, re­gard­less. His 36 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing on for­eign policy, ac­cord­ing to the CBS News poll, is 7 points lower than his already-weak 43 per­cent over­all ap­prov­al rat­ing. He re­ceives low scores on his hand­ling of the Ukraine crisis, and a plur­al­ity think the United States’ im­age around the world has got­ten worse since he be­came pres­id­ent.

That’s what makes Hil­lary Clin­ton’s re­cent com­ments about Rus­sia and Ir­an so telling. At an Amer­ic­an Jew­ish Con­gress din­ner last week, Clin­ton ex­pressed deep skep­ti­cism that Ir­an was really com­mit­ted to rolling back its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, des­pite the on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ations. Earli­er in the month, she com­pared Vladi­mir Putin’s ag­gres­sion in Ukraine to Ad­olf Hitler’s ter­rit­ori­al ad­vances in the run-up to World War II, even though she led ef­forts as sec­ret­ary of State to “re­set” the strained re­la­tion­ship between the two coun­tries.

These aren’t the mus­ings of a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who be­lieves that voters are sat­is­fied with the pres­id­ent’s ap­proach to for­eign policy. She’s try­ing to cre­ate some space between her views and Obama’s, but she’s boxed in by be­ing in­volved with his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign policy for four years. In­deed, her hawk­ish turn is all the more not­able, giv­en that her sup­port of the Ir­aq War in 2003 led to her polit­ic­al de­mise five years later. The fact that she’s once again po­s­i­tion­ing her­self as a hawk is a sign she’s con­cerned that voters may be look­ing for a tough­er com­mand­er in chief come 2016 — in stark con­trast to the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment of 2008.

Even more in­triguing is the mus­cu­lar po­s­i­tion­ing of Rand Paul, one of the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s lead­ing voices against mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion. At the out­set of the crisis in Ukraine, the Ken­tucky sen­at­or soun­ded a sym­path­et­ic note to­ward Rus­sia, ar­guing the U.S. should avoid ant­ag­on­iz­ing their rival. “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Rus­sia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Post in Feb­ru­ary.

But after tak­ing heat on for­eign policy from his tea-party rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Paul’s rhet­or­ic changed markedly. He wrote a Time magazine op-ed, call­ing for the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to be more ag­gress­ive against Putin. “It is our role as a glob­al lead­er to be the strongest na­tion in op­pos­ing Rus­sia’s latest ag­gres­sion “¦ and Rus­sia must learn that the U.S. will isol­ate it if it in­sists on act­ing like a rogue na­tion,” he wrote. If it wasn’t a total flip-flop, it was an ac­know­ledge­ment that be­ing seen as too soft on Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion car­ries a cost with Re­pub­lic­an primary voters.

Mean­while, Marco Ru­bio has seen his stature rise as he’s called for a more mus­cu­lar for­eign policy and cri­tiqued the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of events over­seas. The sen­at­or from Flor­ida wrote a Wash­ing­ton Post op-ed last week, head­lined “Mak­ing Putin Pay,” re­com­mend­ing steps the pres­id­ent could take to counter Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion. At the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, Ru­bio was one of the few speak­ers to fo­cus on for­eign policy, call­ing for act­ive Amer­ic­an en­gage­ment across the world. His Sen­ate floor re­but­tal to Sen. Tom Har­kin of Iowa over Cuba’s and Venezuela’s dis­mal hu­man-rights re­cords be­came a You­Tube sen­sa­tion among con­ser­vat­ive hawks. If for­eign policy ree­m­erges as an im­port­ant is­sue, Ru­bio is bet­ter-po­si­tioned to cap­it­al­ize than any of his pro­spect­ive Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers.

Events can quickly over­take pub­lic opin­ion, as Pres­id­ent George W. Bush quickly learned. The can­did­ate who prom­ised a humble for­eign policy dur­ing the 2000 cam­paign ended up de­clar­ing in his 2004 in­aug­ur­al speech that U.S. policy was to “seek and sup­port the growth of demo­crat­ic move­ments and in­sti­tu­tions in every na­tion and cul­ture.”

For­eign policy may not re­gister as a lead­ing is­sue with voters right now, but if Rus­sia con­tin­ues to re­draw Europe’s bor­ders, Ir­an suc­cess­fully builds a nuc­le­ar weapon, and al-Qaida-af­fil­i­ated ter­ror­ist groups es­tab­lish them­selves in Syr­ia and Libya, bet on it be­ing a ma­jor theme of the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Pro­spect­ive pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates may not be­lieve the worst is yet to come, but they’re cer­tainly pre­par­ing for that pos­sib­il­ity.

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