Editor’s note: This article is part of a series by Keller on the 2016 Presidential race. To stay tuned and read more on the topic please visit our politics archive.
Last week, I talked about the Democratic primary candidates. This week, it’s on to the plausible Republicans. This is harder, as there is no obvious front-runner like Clinton, and no single challenger like Sanders. I’m going to give you a little less detail on a fairly large number of people. As before, I’m mostly going to focus on foreign policy. In general, all Republicans will be more supportive of Israel, more willing to use military force, and less willing to take action on the environment.
I’m going to discuss Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee (in order of current polling). Between them they make up 57%of the total polling preferences at the moment, so it’s likely (I estimate an 80% chance) that it will be one of them.
Big sources of disagreement: Middle east, willingness to deploy military force, level of experience. I’ve decided to profile each prominent candidate individually, as they focus on different things in addition to clashing over what should be done.
Jeb Bush is in many ways a conventional conservative. He talks about being different from his father and brother, both former presidents, but espouses few differing opinions and his knowledge of foreign policy seems weak. Sometimes this causes flip-flopping, as when he said that knowing what we know now, he would have invaded Iraq. By contrast, Marco Rubio, a candidate who is low in the polls but known for his willingness to use military force, said that the then president wouldn’t have invaded had he known, nor would Rubio. After a few days of fumbling, Jeb said that he would not have invaded Iraq had he known then what has been revealed since about the evidence for nuclear weapons being fake or nonexistent, and about the conservative attempt to fix Iraq by beheading it being fundamentally misguided, presumably. His general attitude is to strengthen the US military, and be more active and willing to intervene. He believes that expanded eavesdropping capabilities are good, and that they help protect civil liberties.
Scott Walker firmly believes in leadership. “I think foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhDs. It’s about leadership.” He has also said that the most significant foreign policy event of his lifetime, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Nixon going to China, was when Reagan fired air traffic controllers. To Walker, this demonstrated Reagan’s strength and leadership, and warned other nations that they should be wary of angering the president. Extreme praise and adoration for Reagan, whose presidency included the Iran-Contra scandal, is routine among Republicans, but this is stronger than most. Since those comments, however, he has been making significant efforts to learn more about foreign policy, and in more recent speeches has taken to deliberately demonstrating mastery of facts and figures. Because of his increased recent focus on understanding foreign policy, I expect his specific positions to change. The underlying motives, however, of the importance of demonstrating strength and of being decisive (which is often opposed to being right) are unlikely to change.
The isolationist of the pack, Paul is by far the most in accord with the left-wing side of the Republican Party on foreign policy. He opposes the use of remote-controlled drones to kill suspected terrorists (and whatever civilians happen to be in the same area). When the US was considering attacking Syria, he urged against it, and when there was debate over whether the US should intervene in Ukraine, he urged his fellows to not provoke the still-powerful Russia. When Russia authorized military action, he stepped up his rhetoric, suggesting sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but still urging his fellows to not go to war. He has been a member of the Senate’s committee on foreign relations for two years, and is chairman of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women’s Issues. He’s also a member of the subcommittees for Africa, international aid (which he wants to end), and the Americas / Narcotics (yes, these are the same in the American Senate, and this subcommittee has some of the more forceful senators in the field of foreign policy, as he is joined by former presidential candidate John McCain and rival Marco Rubio, while the democrats opposite him are all noteworthy senators).
Of all the candidates I discuss today, Rand Paul is the most qualified on foreign affairs and is the only one with distinctive: he wants to establish an independent Kurdistan instead of trying to maintain an ethnically mixed Iraq that some experts say cannot be a stable and democratic state because of tensions between ethnoreligious groups. His position on ending foreign aid to Israel alternates depending on the day, a brave move in a country that is used to seeing politicians compete over how much American money they can send. He has questioned US military bases in countries that are not under military threat, and takes seriously the concern that American foreign policy in the Middle East is creating more fighters than it kills.
Ben Carson supports having a guest worker program similar to Canada’s. This is combined, of course, with stricter enforcement.
On the environment, he has made gestures to both sides and offered no clear specifics.
Ben Carson believes that one can trace Al Qaeda’s objections to US foreign policy to the Book of Genesis, where the founder of Judaism had a split with his brother, who according to some Christians, but against scholarly consensus, was an ancestor of Muhammad, the last and most important prophet of Islam. He also believes that, ultimately, Sunni and Shia will unite against America and Israel, a minority opinion among scholars. This is linked to his view that America is “truly an exceptional nation with a different core of values than the rest of the world”. Carson has said that, were he to become president, he would surround himself with a strong foreign policy team. Other than that, it is not obvious what his actual positions would be. He has supported strengthening the military to stop bullying, but also opposes excessive intervention. He complains that foreign policy is “rudderless” and wants us to be more proactive, but hasn’t specified what he would do if elected. Ben Carson has little geopolitical knowledge, a result in part of his never having held elected office or any office with foreign policy exposure, and at this point trying to say more about what he would do seems futile. I would predict similarity to Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, but it is truly hard to say. Hostility to Islam and fondness for Israel are almost certain, given his religiously informed viewpoint, but other than that I don’t think anyone, including Ben Carson, knows.
A Tea Party member like Rand Paul he may be, but Ted Cruz tries to chart a middle ground between the neocons (war friendly republicans who believe in the importance of democracy and free markets. Sometimes derided as cold war relics, their most prominent member is probably Dick Cheney, George Bush Jr.’s vice president and the man behind the invasion of Iraq) and the isolationists. I mentioned earlier that Republican politicians, for reasons I’m not going to discuss now, are always happy to praise Reagan as being slightly below Jesus. Ted Cruz thinks, or at least claims to think, that Reagan changed the “arc of history” by telling Gorbachev, the leader of the USSR at the time, to tear down the Berlin Wall. Scholars would almost uniformly disagree. Reagan’s increased military spending had a toll on the USSR government as it tried to keep up with the Americans, and it could be argued that he did influence history that way (though most scholars would say that the USSR was already on the decline), but the idea that a single speech changed the “arc of history” is dubious. This matches his overall lack of foreign policy experience: Cruz has the same amount of foreign policy experience Barack Obama did when he became president (four years in the senate), something rivals are likely to use against Cruz. He’s served on the subcommittee for the armed forces, but not on the foreign relations committee itself.
Cruz believes that the US should only use force under three conditions. The first is that the use of force benefit national security. The second is that there be no rules, limitations, or regulations on what the armed forces can do. This presumably is against rules banning torture and excessive slaughter of civilians. The last is that the US should leave as soon as the objective has been achieved: supporting nation building is bad. This is part of the Cruz Doctrine. He opposes talks with Iran, and slams Obama (and his presumptive rival Clinton) for being weak and ineffectual. Supporting intervention but opposing staying, fond of idealism but unwilling to increase foreign aid, Cruz seems unlikely to inspire on foreign policy. Ted Cruz is planning on focusing much of his primary campaign on foreign policy, so you can expect to hear more about this.
Huckabee supports a 50% increase in military spending, which would push the US to spending more on it’s military than every other country in the world, combined. In 2007 he said that“We need to return to that six percent level” in the pages of America’s most respected source on foreign affairs, the percent of US GDP spending on the military, which would be slightly over a trillion dollars. Current total expenditure is about 1.7 trillion dollars. Some would call this an excessive amount of money to spend. Of course, Huckabee doesn’t want to rerun his 2008 campaign, though according to the pollsters at 538 he may be doomed to. Huckabee, like Ben Carson, is strongly religious, an ordained Southern Baptist(conservative Protestant group in America), but bases his worldview less on the Bible. Huckabee certainly doesn’t go in for any consideration of “love thy neighbor”: a representative quote is that “I never want this country to get to the place where people do not fear the United States of America”.
Paul is a thoughtful and well informed dove who would strongly prefer to not deploy US troops. Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee will posture about strength, and have a lot to learn about foreign policy to be serious contenders. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush chart middle paths for the primary, and while both could brush up on their briefings, they are generally aware of the world. Ben Carson has exactly the foreign policy experience you would expect from a fantastic and brilliant neurosurgeon, but he claims he will be able to acquire good advisers.