A Midwestern Governor Is the GOP’s Last Chance to Challenge Trump’s Nativism

Trump’s saber rattling on foreign policy belies a more anti-interventionist posture out of touch with the Republican Party establishment. They better get used to it.

BEREA, OH - MARCH 15:  Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich greets supporters at Baldwin Wallace University March 15, 2015 in Berea, Ohio. Kasich won the Ohio primary tonight.  (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
BEREA, OH - MARCH 15: Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich greets supporters at Baldwin Wallace University March 15, 2015 in Berea, Ohio. Kasich won the Ohio primary tonight. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

MIAMI — Marco Rubio’s departure from the U.S. presidential race removes a key GOP player in the ongoing push to force Donald Trump to move beyond bluster and offer specifics on a range of key foreign-policy issues — and leaves a Midwestern governor as the last chance to prod the mogul into saying how he’d actually handle the Islamic State and the broader Middle East.

That could be a tall order for John Kasich, who dealt with national security during his 18 years in Congress from 1983 to 2001 but has more recently focused on domestic issues in both Washington and his current post running the swing state of Ohio.

Kasich’s push for the GOP nomination has centered on two arguments: that he has a record of experience neither of his remaining rivals possess and that his relatively moderate views make him more electable than Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Kasich repeated those points after claiming victory in Ohio Tuesday night, saying he’d bring the Republican Party together to get things done. He did not, however, mention foreign-policy matters in his speech in Berea, Ohio.

“You better believe it’s about America. It’s about pulling us together, not pulling us apart,” he said. “I want to remind you again tonight that I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”

His foreign-policy views are a bit harder to discern given that he — unlike Rubio — hasn’t made those issues a key part of his candidacy.

During his nearly eight-month campaign, Kasich has said, “Bombings are not enough,” against the Islamic State, calling for U.S. ground troops as part of a coalition of allies from Europe and the Middle East as well as “safe zones and no-fly zones.” He supports the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and more international cooperation on intelligence.

“I’m going to remind everybody that 55 percent of the foreign-policy experts in this country said I was the best to be commander in chief,” he said in the GOP presidential debate in Miami last Thursday.

Rubio, like Jeb Bush before him, had criticized Trump’s foreign-policy views as naive and dangerous, particularly when it came to the mogul’s willingness to ignite a trade war with China and inflame relations with key Arab allies through his harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric. That now falls to Kasich, but it’s unclear he will have any more success getting specifics from the billionaire businessman.

That’s because behind the tough-guy bluster, fear mongering and nativist rhetoric, Trump’s national security strategy is far more geared toward tapping into anger and disenfranchisement among a vocal portion of the Republican electorate than it is toward outlining clear policies addressing what will likely be the most pressing issues facing the president on Day One: defeating the Islamic State, confronting an increasingly aggressive Russia, and stabilizing the broader Middle East.

But in a sign of what a continued Kasich campaign is up against, Trump won Florida, Illinois and North Carolina Tuesday night, and as of Wednesday morning, stood poised to win Missouri.

Neither Rubio spokesman Alex Conant nor Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded to requests for comment.

The Islamic State’s unexpected rise mobilized the base of force-first Republicans after years of discreditation due to the George W. Bush administration’s unpopular wars in the Middle East. After terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., almost all the GOP presidential candidates sought to one-up each other on national security muscle with calls to ban Muslims from the United States, “carpet bombing” the Islamic State in Syria, embracing methods of torture in interrogations, and slamming reluctance to wield U.S. military force as weakness and a liability.

Kasich, while more tempered in his language, has also supported a “pause” to resettling Syrian refugees in the United States, saying in November after the Paris attacks, “There is no way that we can put any of our people at risk by bringing people in at this point.”

While Kasich has gotten little media attention or debate speaking time compared to Trump and other candidates, he has one of the longest resumes on defense of any of the contenders. During his nearly two decades in Congress, he took on the Pentagon’s spending as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the powerful Budget Committee. He ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, but bowed out when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush dried up much of the donor pool.

So far this year, Kasich has won fewer states than Cruz or Trump and trails both of them significantly in terms of delegates won. Still, he is virtually certain to pick up the establishment support — and money — that first went to Jeb Bush and then to Rubio out of deep fears about how a President Trump would handle America’s role on the world stage.

“He would cozy up to Russia and likely [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad,” Tim Miller, senior adviser to Our Principles PAC, a group formed to dedicate donor dollars and gather supporters toward stopping Trump, told Foreign Policy in a statement Tuesday night.

Miller was previously a spokesman for Jeb Bush, who at the outset of the race was expected to challenge Rubio for Florida, but dropped out after relentless bashing by Trump. “He is a thin-skinned person who could turn on our allies or sidle up to an enemy at the drop of a hat,” Miller added. “It would be the most erratic foreign policy of modern times.”

Robert O’Brien, a senior advisor to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 bids for the GOP nomination, was a bit more tempered in his response to Trump’s continued rise. But O’Brien — who advised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker before he dropped out — still expressed concern about Trump’s ambiguous foreign policy.

“He has called for the rebuilding of the military, which is positive. Unfortunately, he has been short on specifics and has criticized key weapons systems,” O’Brien told Foreign Policy Tuesday night, noting the anxiety Trump inspires among those he referred to as Reagan-esque, “peace through strength” Republican advisors.

“Trump has yet to name a national security or foreign-policy team,” O’Brien continued. “Once he does, it may yield clues as to what his approach ‎will be should he be elected.”

Anti-Trump Republicans also argue he doesn’t stand a chance on the critical issue of national security against the likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who took a huge leap toward cementing that nomination on Tuesday night. Clinton won clear victories in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina, and Illinois, and had pulled ahead of rival Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, in Missouri as of Wednesday morning.

“Protecting America’s national security can never be an afterthought,” Clinton said in her victory speech in West Palm Beach, Florida. She referred to her front-row seat to foreign-policy decisions under the Obama administration and alluded to the relative inexperience of her likely opponent in the general election in November.

“Our commander in chief must defend our country, not embarrass it; engage our allies, not alienate them; defeat our adversaries, not embolden them,” Clinton said. “When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12 million immigrants, and banning all Muslims from entering the United States, when he embraces torture — that doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong.”

On that point, Clinton and the “anybody but Trump” Republicans are oddly aligned, as Trump’s statements are out of touch with much of the Republican Party whose nomination he’s vying for.

Before Bush’s exit, Trump slammed him and his brother, the former president, who remains popular among a number of more mainstream Republicans, for the Iraq War. He went so far as to suggest George W. Bush had been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. “They lied,” Trump said in the last presidential debate before the South Carolina primary, which he won. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.”

In saying the United States shouldn’t be engaged in regime change, as he called Iraq and Libya, Trump at times sounds further to the left than Clinton, whose record of readiness toward intervention puts her to the right of the Democratic Party’s base.

“If these politicians went to the beach and didn’t do a thing, and we had Saddam Hussein and if we had [Libyan dictator Muammar al-] Qaddafi in charge, instead of having terrorism all over the place, we’d be — at least they killed terrorists, all right?” Trump said at a debate in late February. “And I’m not saying they were good because they were bad, they were really bad, but we don’t know what we’re getting. You look at Libya right now: ISIS, as we speak, is taking over their oil…. It’s a total mess.”

In the GOP presidential debate last week, while Trump dialed down the insult-throwing of previous forums, he also stuck with his kind words about Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I think Putin has been a very strong leader for Russia. I think he has been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you.”

While insisting he’s “pro-Israel” and pointing to Jewish family members, Trump also repeated in last Thursday’s debate he would remain “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians. “I would like to at least have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral as to them, so that we can maybe get a deal done,” he said. To date, Trump hasn’t offered any specifics about what a final solution to the decades-long conflict would look like, particularly on hot-button issues like the future of Jerusalem, nor said how he would even get the two sides back to the negotiating table.

And while Trump came as close as he has yet in the campaign to saying how many U.S. troops he would support deploying to the Middle East against the Islamic State, he reiterated in the debate that he’d take the military’s advice. “I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000 to 30,000. We have to knock them out fast,” he said.

But Trump has yet to announce a team of advisors on foreign policy, military or no, beyond what he sees on “the shows.” The mainstream GOP foreign-policy establishment, including key players like Stephen J. Hadley, former Sen. Jim Talent, or Elliot Abrams, will now need to decide whether to throw their support to Kasich, hold off until the convention, or make their peace with Trump.

Some voters and a few Republican leaders have already chosen option three.

Photo credit: Jeff Swensen

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