Foreign policy divided Republican presidential contenders on Wednesday night: between those who pretended that a tough, no-nonsense posture would cow American adversaries into submission and those who cautioned that going it alone would make the country less, not more, secure.
The more hawkish noises during the presidential primary debate broadcast from California by CNN came from candidates who are now high in the polls for the party’s nomination.
Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, again said President Barack Obama should cancel a state visit from his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, this month because the country manipulates its currency and spies on American companies and government agencies.
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard executive and only woman in the race, said the United States shouldn’t talk with Russian president Vladimir Putin either and rather build up forces in Europe and carry out “aggressive” military exercises in the Baltic Sea region to deter America’s former Cold War adversary. Putin will only stop, she said, if he senses “strength and resolve on the other side.”
The notion that America’s foes are exploiting a perceived lack of strength on Obama’s part was reiterated by others.
Mike Huckabee, a former governor or Arkansas, and Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, both argued that Iran was playing the United States for a fool and would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement it reached with world powers in July.
Huckabee was the most apocalyptic, describing the deal as a danger to Western civilization altogether. Cruz said that by unfreezing Iranian assets overseas, the Obama Administration had become the world’s premier sponsor of terrorism. (Iran supports terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.) Both vowed to tear up the deal as soon as they were elected.
Others dismissed this as bluster.
John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, and Rand Paul, a libertarian senator from Kentucky, were skeptical that Iran would abide by the agreement which lifts economic sanctions in return for nuclear inspections.
But they also said it should be given time and warned that pulling out would isolate not Iran but America.
“We are stronger when we work with our friends in Europe,” Kasich said, “and just doing it on our own, I don’t think is the right policy.”
Rand in particular took fellow contenders to task for suggesting that America could sever diplomatic relations with its rivals. “Think if Reagan had said that during the Cold War!”
The former president, who is now revered on the right as the man who “won” the Cold War, was in fact criticized by his own party when he negotiated nuclear arms reductions with the Soviet Union.
Rand added that it would be “absurd” to cut up the Iran deal. “Wouldn’t you want to know if they complied?” he wondered.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and brother and son of two former Republican presidents, walked a middle path, saying tearing up the nuclear agreement was not a strategy but also accusing the Democrats of leaving Israel vulnerable in the face of Iranian aggression.
The divide between Republican doves and hawks has widened in recent years. Rand’s noninterventionism and attacks on the surveillance state may be too far to the left for the mainstream of the party but the neoconservative wing that took America into the Iraq War has also been discredited — at least in the country at large.
Rightwingers may cling to the notion that all America needs to do to get its way in the world is project strength and determination; a fantasy that is recklessly perpetuated by leaders who should know better. Voters are less sure. Polls show they are losing faith in Republicans to manage the country’s international relations. The likes of Bush and Kasich may reverse that trend with a foreign policy that is a bit more levelheaded. Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee and Walker will almost certainly not.