How Can Republicans Blunt Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Edge?

It’s been years since Democrats held a national security advantage in a presidential race. If Clinton runs, the GOP will be scrambling to take it away.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 23: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a during a round table event to launch the 'Talking is Teaching: Talk Read Sing' campaign at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute on July 23, 2014 in Oakland, California. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the 'Talking is Teaching; Talk Read Sing' campaign in partnership withToo Small to Fail and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation that encourages parents and caregivers to close the word gap by talking, singing and reading to children every day from the birth. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
July 31, 2014, 1 a.m.

For evid­ence that for­eign af­fairs are swiftly emer­ging as a cent­ral factor in the nas­cent 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, look no fur­ther than Dal­las, deep in the heart of Texas and 7,000 miles away from the bru­tal con­flict in Ga­za.

There, on Wed­nes­day, Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave a speech re­af­firm­ing his solid­ar­ity with the people of Is­rael. While it might feel a little like the may­or of Sac­ra­mento stand­ing up to Vladi­mir Putin, the move said much about the wide-open Re­pub­lic­an field.

With the world aflame in Ga­za, Ukraine, Syr­ia, and else­where, po­ten­tial 2016 can­did­ates are sharpen­ing their for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity cre­den­tials, seek­ing out­side coun­sel, and rais­ing their pro­files. Perry is just one ex­ample. In re­cent months, oth­ers such as Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Ru­bio have been prov­ing the ad­age that politi­cians should nev­er let a crisis go to waste.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has giv­en them a tar­get in plain sight. And while it’s re­l­at­ively easy to lob brick­bats from the cheap seats, say­ing that the pres­id­ent should be, in ef­fect, do­ing more every­where, there’s an­oth­er reas­on why pos­sible con­tenders have to be work­ing on their for­eign policy game now, not later: the pro­spect of a Hil­lary Clin­ton can­did­acy.

Clin­ton, the former sec­ret­ary of State, could place Demo­crats in an un­fa­mil­i­ar po­s­i­tion in the next pres­id­en­tial race, giv­ing them the edge in for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity. You would have to go back to Al Gore’s race against George W. Bush in 2000 to find the last time that happened — and Gore was nev­er the na­tion’s lead­ing dip­lo­mat.

“It’s as­sumed she is a heavy­weight on for­eign policy,” said Vin Weber, the former Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­man from Min­nesota and a mem­ber of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. “You can’t look like you’re com­pletely out­classed.”

Con­versely, should Clin­ton not run and Demo­crats em­brace someone such as Eliza­beth War­ren, who seems al­most ex­clus­ively fo­cused on do­mest­ic eco­nom­ic is­sues, that edge would van­ish and some Re­pub­lic­an — be it Perry, Ru­bio, or someone else — will be in a po­s­i­tion to cap­it­al­ize. That means they have to lay the ground­work now.

Clin­ton presents a for­mid­able chal­lenge. She is widely viewed, rightly or wrongly, as more hawk­ish than Obama, more will­ing to use Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary power. And she has been subtly dis­tan­cing her­self from the pres­id­ent’s ap­proach to­ward hot­beds like Syr­ia and Rus­sia. Her com­ments in a week­end in­ter­view on CNN were seen by some as a cri­tique of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. The United States, Clin­ton said, needs to “go back out and sell ourselves” on the world stage. “What do we stand for and how do we in­tend to lead and man­age?” she asked, adding, “I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that.”

It es­sen­tially means that Clin­ton would, should she run, be oc­cupy­ing the space that might nor­mally be held by a tra­di­tion­al na­tion­al se­cur­ity Re­pub­lic­an, someone like John Mc­Cain or Mitt Rom­ney. The New York Times even wondered aloud wheth­er Clin­ton could be con­sidered a neo­con­ser­vat­ive in the mold of, wait for it, Paul Wolfow­itz. That doesn’t mean Clin­ton would be fire­walled from Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks. As Weber says, she can’t en­tirely sep­ar­ate her­self from Obama. For one thing, she’ll have to de­fend her move at State to “re­set” re­la­tions with Putin and Rus­sia — al­though now she says she was “skep­tic­al” of Putin all along.

In terms of out­reach to the for­eign policy es­tab­lish­ment, Clin­ton, too, is light-years ahead of her po­ten­tial rivals. At the State De­part­ment, she formed a bi­par­tis­an out­side ad­vis­ory group, which in­cluded neo­con­ser­vat­ive schol­ar Robert Kagan; John Negro­ponte, who served as an ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Re­agan and na­tion­al in­tel­li­gence dir­ect­or un­der George W. Bush; Steph­en Krasner, a former aide to Con­doleezza Rice at State; and Steph­en Had­ley, who served as Bush’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser.

Clin­ton’s cent­rist street cred could force some con­tenders to veer more sharply to the right to define them­selves. There are signs that’s already hap­pen­ing. In an in­ter­view this week with the Daily Beast, Cruz said he would con­sider scut­tling any nuc­le­ar-arms deal struck by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion with Ir­an if he con­sidered it a threat to na­tion­al se­cur­ity. Last month, Ru­bio likened Sunni in­sur­gents in Ir­aq and Syr­ia to al-Qaida and cri­ti­cized Obama for pub­licly rul­ing out send­ing U.S. ground troops to the re­gion. And then there’s very real polit­ic­al risk that con­ser­vat­ives such as Cruz could end up ali­en­at­ing main­stream voters with a re­lent­less fo­cus on for­eign policy side is­sues, namely Benghazi.

But no one’s carved out a niche like Paul, who has found him­self un­der re­peated at­tack by the GOP na­tion­al se­cur­ity es­tab­lish­ment. Perry led the charge with a with­er­ing op-ed in The Wash­ing­ton Post earli­er this month, in which he said the Ken­tucky liber­tari­an wants to cre­ate a “gi­ant moat” around Amer­ica “where su­per­powers can re­tire from the world.”

Paul’s camp denies the sen­at­or’s for­eign policy should be viewed as “isol­a­tion­ist,” as Perry charges. Lorne Cran­er, a for­eign policy ad­viser to Paul, told Na­tion­al Journ­al that Paul should be con­sidered a “real­ist” along the lines of former Re­pub­lic­an for­eign policy ti­tans like James A. Baker III, Casper Wein­ber­ger, and George Schultz. “He has a very high bar for mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion,” said Cran­er, who worked at the State De­part­ment un­der Colin Pow­ell. “That is im­port­ant. I think we’ve learned last 10 years — the last 40 years really — to think care­fully be­fore you get in­to a war.”

Os­tens­ibly re­fer­ring to Perry and some oth­er of Paul’s crit­ics, Cran­er ad­ded: “Re­pub­lic­ans used to have a repu­ta­tion as the for­eign-policy grownups. That’s not the way most voters would de­scribe it at this point.”

Paul’s re­cruit­ment of Cran­er is part of his ex­ten­ded out­reach to Wash­ing­ton’s for­eign policy com­munity. He’s also met with El­li­ott Ab­rams, the former Middle East policy ex­pert in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, among oth­ers. While prais­ing Paul’s in­tel­lect, Ab­rams said, “I think he wants to see a very di­min­ished Amer­ic­an role…. I think his view is quite dis­tinct.”

For his part, Cruz tapped Vic­tor­ia Coates, a former aide to Don­ald Rums­feld, as his top na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser after she did a turn ad­vising Perry dur­ing the 2012 cam­paign. Ru­bio brought aboard Jam­ie Fly, a mem­ber of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil dur­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and the former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the For­eign Policy Ini­ti­at­ive, a neo­con­ser­vat­ive ad­vocacy group, as his na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser. Ac­cord­ing to The Post, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie has con­sul­ted with Richard Haass, the pres­id­ent of the Coun­cil of For­eign Re­la­tions.

Christie il­lus­trates the haz­ard of try­ing to mas­ter for­eign re­la­tions on the fly. In March, he had to apo­lo­gize to GOP mega-donor Shel­don Ad­el­son after re­fer­ring in a speech to Palestini­an re­gions in Is­rael as “oc­cu­pied ter­rit­or­ies.” Weber says that while for­eign policy is rarely the primary con­cern of voters, a “gaffe can be fatal. Every pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate has to make sure they look know­ledge­able on Amer­ica’s role in the world.”

It’s a con­cern that no doubt was in the fore­front of Perry’s mind as he de­livered his re­marks on Is­rael on Wed­nes­day from the re­l­at­ive safety of Dal­las. Like many of his po­ten­tial rivals, the gov­ernor is learn­ing to swim in wa­ter that’s get­ting deep­er by the day.

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