The GOP’s Foreign Policy Problem

With the Ukraine crisis highlighting a more dangerous world, global affairs could return as a strong issue — and a Republican weakness — in 2016.

US President Ronald Reagan, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, addresses on June 12, 1987 the people of West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, near the Berlin wall. Due to the amplification system being used, the President's words could also be heard on the Eastern (Communist-controlled) side of the wall. "Tear down this wall!" was the famous command from United States President Ronald Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall. The address Reagan delivered that day is considered by many to have affirmed the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism. On Nov. 9-11, 1989, the people of a free Berlin tore down that wall. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is 2nd-right. 
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Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
March 6, 2014, 4 p.m.

In Janu­ary, Rand Paul was in­vited to give a for­eign policy ad­dress to a dis­tin­guished Wash­ing­ton crowd that in­cluded Henry Kis­sing­er and Brent Scow­croft. Paul didn’t em­bar­rass him­self, but for a fairly soph­ist­ic­ated audi­ence ex­pect­ing to hear the views of a pos­sible Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tender, it was un­der­whelm­ing stuff. The sen­at­or from Ken­tucky de­livered what could only be de­scribed as a ba­sic primer on his ideo­lo­gic­al jour­ney from ex­treme liber­tari­an­ism to bal­anced real­ism, an ef­fort at play­ing to the largely tra­di­tion­al­ist GOP audi­ence at the Cen­ter for the Na­tion­al In­terest (or what used to be known as the Nix­on Cen­ter). “It was simplist­ic,” said one former seni­or mem­ber of the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion who at­ten­ded the event. “He didn’t con­nect it up with any­thing ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in the world.” Paul’s speech was stocked with fairly ob­vi­ous ob­ser­va­tions, such as “dip­lomacy only is suc­cess­ful when both parties feel that they have won.” And in the end he ap­peared slightly apo­lo­get­ic, say­ing, “I hope I haven’t in­sul­ted any­one — or too many of you — with a phys­i­cian’s thoughts on dip­lomacy.”

For oth­er seni­or GOP for­eign policy ex­perts, Paul’s speech was evid­ence of a more wor­ri­some is­sue, one that no one is talk­ing about now but that is brought in­to re­lief by the on­go­ing crisis in Ukraine, with its Cold War over­tones. Wheth­er you in­clude em­battled New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie in the group or not, the lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an Party names in the pres­id­en­tial sweepstakes pos­sess pre­cious little for­eign policy ex­per­i­ence. As in, vir­tu­ally none. And they may be go­ing up against a Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent whose last job was sec­ret­ary of State and who has been trav­el­ing the world and giv­ing speeches on for­eign policy for the past 20 years, ever since, as first lady, she de­livered a fam­ous ad­dress on glob­al wo­men’s rights in Beijing. Re­pub­lic­ans may like to go on about Benghazi, but, ac­cord­ing to a new Pew poll, 67 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans ap­prove of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s per­form­ance as sec­ret­ary of State, and 69 per­cent view her as “tough.” An­oth­er lead­ing po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic con­tender, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, the long­time chair­man of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, also has a repu­ta­tion as a for­eign policy ex­pert.

It’s an odd state of af­fairs for the party that has tra­di­tion­ally seen for­eign policy as its strength, and which once pro­duced widely ad­mired for­eign-af­fairs gi­ants such as Dwight Eis­en­hower, Richard Nix­on, and Ron­ald Re­agan, who is of­ten cred­ited with win­ning the Cold War and who began de­vel­op­ing fairly soph­ist­ic­ated views about the So­viet Uni­on in the early ‘60s. Today, only Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida ap­pears to be mak­ing an ef­fort to get well groun­ded, with fre­quent trips abroad. Most oth­ers are home­bound, and even some of the more im­press­ive po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial con­tenders — such as Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Ted Cruz, or gov­ernors such as Mike Pence of In­di­ana, Scott Walk­er of Wis­con­sin, and John Kasich of Ohio — have made their repu­ta­tions largely on do­mest­ic is­sues. Even 2012 nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney had some­what more for­eign policy ex­per­i­ence, as an in­ter­na­tion­al busi­ness­man, and he’s be­gun to look fairly pres­ci­ent with his harsh views of Rus­sia as Amer­ica’s “No. 1 geo­pol­it­ic­al foe.”

GOP strategists, of course, are still hop­ing that if she runs, Clin­ton will be tarred by the 2012 at­tack in Benghazi, Libya, that left Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens and three oth­er Amer­ic­ans dead. Al­though her crit­ics failed to prove any kind of cov­er-up of in­form­a­tion about the ter­ror­ist groups re­spons­ible for Stevens’s death, an of­fi­cial re­port con­cluded that State was re­miss, and Clin­ton was the first sec­ret­ary of State to lose an am­bas­sad­or in the field since Jimmy Carter’s sec­ret­ary, Cyr­us Vance. And the GOP is already mus­ter­ing its rhet­or­ic­al guns to make the case that Clin­ton was, at best, a fair sec­ret­ary of State who left be­hind no great dip­lo­mat­ic tri­umphs.

De­pend­ing on how the on­go­ing Ukraine crisis plays out, Re­pub­lic­ans can also be ex­pec­ted to paint Clin­ton as na­ive for her 2009 at­tempt to launch a “re­set” of U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions, and to re­play again and again the video of the then-sec­ret­ary of State hand­ing a sym­bol­ic red “re­set but­ton” to her smil­ing but wily coun­ter­part, Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov.

Already the GOP is on the at­tack against Pres­id­ent Obama and, by im­plic­a­tion, his en­tire ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing Clin­ton and Biden, claim­ing that Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s mil­it­ary seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Pen­in­sula was a dir­ect re­sponse to what Sen. John Mc­Cain called “a feck­less for­eign policy where nobody be­lieves in Amer­ica’s strength any more.” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, who like Mc­Cain is nev­er at a loss for words when it comes to cri­ti­ciz­ing Obama’s for­eign policy, told CNN, “We have a weak and in­de­cis­ive pres­id­ent that in­vites ag­gres­sion.”

But Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers are even now rolling out her de­fense, not­ing that she suc­cess­fully over­saw the START arms-re­duc­tion pact with Mo­scow and en­lis­ted Putin’s help in put­ting pres­sure on Ir­an. In re­cent days, Clin­ton has also po­si­tioned her­self as tough on Rus­sia, harshly cri­ti­ciz­ing Putin as someone who has il­le­git­im­ately seized power in a way “quite re­min­is­cent of the kind of au­thor­ity ex­er­cised in the past by Rus­si­an lead­ers, by the czars and their suc­cessor Com­mun­ist lead­ers.” She also said it was im­per­at­ive for the U.S. to back a “uni­fied Ukraine.”

If Clin­ton and Biden don’t run, of course, the field will look far more equal­ized, since lead­ing po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic con­tenders such as New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo and Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, as well as Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren, are also lack­ing in for­eign policy ex­per­i­ence. And it’s fair to point out that Obama him­self had little for­eign policy ex­per­i­ence in 2008 after just two years in the Sen­ate. But if Clin­ton and Biden do jump in, both are likely to be for­mid­able in­deed on a top­ic that is al­most cer­tain to play big in the 2016 cam­paign.

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