The GOP Is Not Going to Win This Election on Foreign Policy

Why Republican hawkishness doesn’t play well with American voters.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 27:  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 27: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. Conservative activists attended the annual political conference to discuss their agenda. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jeb Bush is finally throwing his hat in the GOP race today, looking to win over American voters with a muscular foreign-policy agenda that contrasts with President Barack Obama’s hesitant engagement. Indeed, Republicans are salivating at polls indicating Americans may be recovering from the shadow the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cast over activist engagement by Washington in the world. The GOP senses an opening to regain foreign policy as a solid conservative electoral advantage, and a wedge issue for the upcoming presidential contest. Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination are out-hawking each other on the stump as the campaign gets underway: With the exception of Rand Paul, all the Republican candidates would repudiate the Iranian nuclear deal, would counter Russian aggression more forcefully, give more support to Israel, and exterminate the Islamic State. And even Rand Paul has been trying to stake out less isolationist ground. But there are several reasons to think Republicans are overstating the strength of foreign policy as a winning electoral issue in 2016.

But first, here are some reasons Republicans justifiably think foreign policy could be a political winner. Some 55 percent of Americans believe President Barack Obama isn’t tough enough on foreign policy; a whopping 9 in 10 Republicans think so. Obama’s anguished consideration of whether to enforce his red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons was deeply unpopular. While the difficulties associated with sustaining public support for long and inconclusive wars — even when they are well-run and make progress — are always present in democratic societies, about half of Americans consider it a mistake to have withdrawn all our troops from Iraq, and 66 percent support sending more American troops to train and advise the Iraqi military.

It does not appear Americans avert their eyes from emergent threats: 67 percent view the Islamic State as the major threat to the United States. Americans are cleareyed about the changing nature of Russia, too: Concern about Vladimir Putin’s intentions has increased six-fold since 2011. And Americans are willing to put their country on the line for others: Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 6 in 10 Americans now believe Ukraine should become a member of NATO — and nearly the same proportion believe the United States should use military force to defend its NATO allies, a significantly higher proportion than in other NATO countries.

There are reasons, however, to doubt that dissatisfaction with the president’s hesitant policies will translate into political advantage for Republicans in 2016.

First, the level of dissatisfaction with the president’s foreign policy isn’t markedly increasing: It was at 54 percent seven months ago. The good news for Republicans is that’s a big number; the bad news is that it isn’t getting bigger. And Americans are still wary about getting too involved overseas; only 31 percent believe the United States does too little to solve the world’s problems. While that’s down from 51 percent last fall, it has stabilized, so a full third of Americans are unlikely to support greater activism. Even though Americans are dissatisfied with Obama’s policies, it may not translate into belief that more assertive policies will solve the problems worrying America about the world.

Second, some of the policies Republican presidential candidates are hitting hardest actually have pretty solid public support. More Americans approve than disapprove of the Iranian nuclear deal; yet every Republican candidate has asserted they will repudiate the agreement. And 63 percent of Americans support stronger ties to Cuba, which again puts Republican candidates at odds with public attitudes.

Third, strong negative attitudes persist about the Iraq War, and Republicans own that one. Fifty-nine percent of Americans think the war in Iraq was a mistake, and 55 percent oppose putting ground troops in Iraq. Meanwhile, half of Americans express concern that the United States could get too involved in the Middle East, which suggests there is still concern about the practicality of conservative solutions. Conservatives will need to show they have strategies that are achievable — at costs the American people judge commensurate with the gains.

Perhaps most importantly, Republican candidates have not yet outlined a strategy for dealing with the national security problems on which they are making political hay. Many candidates are allowing themselves to be drawn into debating troop levels for Iraq without explaining either the political objective that military force would achieve, the many non-military elements necessary for any strategy to succeed, or where this problem should fit in our national priorities. Republicans rightly criticize Obama for not having a strategy — but that also means the public will rightly expect them to have one. Criticizing the president’s failures makes for good stump speeches now, but not for long — and Reagan-esque platitudes about strong American leadership will not be enough.

The positions many Republican candidates are staking out will also be untenable when governing. How, for example, do Republicans aim to sustain the sanctions regime against Iran when Europeans are essential to that undertaking and all favor the nuclear deal? How can they destroy the Islamic State without addressing the failures of governance that make its gains possible? How does increasing defense spending marry up with eliminating the deficit? Especially after the mismanagement of the Iraq War, Republicans need to show themselves to be conscientious architects, not just good critics.

Finally, there is the broader question of whether the American public will actually cast its ballots on the basis of foreign policy. Traditionally, foreign policy tends to be a gateway issue: Presidential aspirants need to win the public’s trust as a credible, potential commander in chief. Having satisfied that standard, the public tends to vote on domestic issues. Republicans are more likely to pick up votes with their economic programs than foreign policy, even in 2016. On current form, Republican presidential candidates look to be overstating foreign policy and understating how critical voters are likely to be of activist foreign policy as an electoral draw for 2016.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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