Two weeks’ vacation on Cape Cod was a pleasant escape from the bizarre political circus otherwise known as the Republican primary contest, in which foreign policy has mostly gotten short shrift.
But for someone who has been very critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, there’s scant solace in the positions of those candidates who are now giving foreign policy speeches. While Obama’s policies pursued inflated hopes over realities, these Republicans ignore realities in favor of dated dreams.
For purposes of brevity (and sanity), I won’t focus on the foreign policy ravings of reality showman and leader in the Republican primary polls Donald Trump. Suffice it to say that The Donald told “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he would defeat the Islamic State — and fund America’s wounded warriors — by taking over the oil fields the terrorists have seized in Iraq.
Never mind that nearly all the oil fields the Islamic State has seized are in Syria, and, according to the International Business Times, the sole Iraqi oil field the Islamic State still controls is producing only 2,000 barrels a day. And never mind that Trump never told us how he intended to liberate those nonexistent fields. Who cares about facts when The Donald’s goal is to prey on angry and confused primary voters with demagogic glee?
Instead, let’s take a look at recent speeches by the youthful comer from Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio, and the presumed favorite (even if the polls don’t reflect it), former Gov. Jeb Bush. Not surprisingly, they contain sharp critiques of Obama’s mistakes, but when it comes to putting forth alternatives (or recognizing past Republican errors that helped create the Mideast mess we’re in), they fall flat.
Rubio says he will restore “the post-1945 presidential tradition of a strong and engaged America.” But his definition of renewing America’s strength displays a reckless, neoconservative eagerness for foreign military engagements that seems oblivious to the disastrous debacle and unforeseen consequences of the Iraq war.
In debunking the Iran deal, he says he “would have maneuvered forces in the (Mideast) region to signal readiness” for military action if Iran didn’t make further concessions. He points to the fact that “after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran halted a key component of its nuclear program.” He seems oblivious to the fact that in 2003, the Bush administration squandered the chance to negotiate with Tehran from a position of strength at a time when its number of centrifuges was nearly nil.
More to the point, the Obama team probably could have negotiated a tighter deal, but not by threatening another Mideast war. Does Rubio really think another U.S. invasion was warranted? Is he even aware that a strike on Iran — with all its unforeseen consequences — would have only set Tehran’s nuclear program back a couple of years? Does he have an alternative way to stop Iran’s nuclear program if the current deal goes down?
This careless talk of using force peppers Rubio’s remarks, as does slippery talk of promoting democracy in foreign dictatorships — a past practice that brought the Bush team poor results. Perhaps we can chalk up Rubio’s enthusiasm to the tendency of youth to ignore lessons past, but would we want that enthusiasm in the White House?
Jeb Bush, on the other hand, ignores lessons past because the realities of his brother George W.’s foreign policy mistakes hang like an albatross around his own campaign.
No matter Obama’s errors, Bush can’t escape the fact that his brother’s Iraq invasion handed that country to Iran’s sphere of influence. It was the Bush administration that toppled a secular Sunni dictator in the expectation that this would produce a friendly, Shiite-led democracy. It was the Bush team that set up an Iraqi government led by Shiite religious parties that enabled Iran to exert political control over Baghdad.
Without facing up to the theoretical source of those mistakes, the Republicans cannot fashion a coherent foreign policy.
I am very sympathetic to Bush’s tactical critique of Obama’s failures in Iraq and Syria. As he points out, “a minimalist approach of incremental escalation” without a clear strategy has not prevented the Islamic State from expanding its foothold in those two countries.
And he is correct in calling for Obama to offer more help to Iraqi Sunni tribes who want to fight the Islamic State. That should include embedding U.S. Special Forces officers with tribes and Iraqi military units to make them more effective and providing them with forward air controllers.
But when it comes to the bigger picture, Bush gets lost. Without thinking through when and how America should use its military abroad, Bush waxes incoherent.
He carelessly calls for Washington and its allies to declare a no-fly zone in Syria — without any attention to what that would demand in the way of U.S. air strikes and ground forces. He calls for the formation of a “stable, moderate government” in Syria without any hint of how this miracle could be formed.
This mishmash hints at the distance Republicans still have to travel to offer coherent foreign policy ideas that would deliver a better result than Obama has. So far, they have taken the easy road by bashing the White House. But they have yet to present a clear strategy for how they would balance diplomacy and force.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.