Politics & Policy

An Early Look at the GOP Candidates’ Positions on Foreign Policy

There’s a much wider range of opinion than just hawks versus doves.

Yesterday, Senator Rand Paul formally announced his candidacy for president, becoming the second Republican, following Ted Cruz, to throw his hat into the ring. Almost immediately, a PAC organized by the same group responsible for the famous anti–John Kerry Swift Boat ads launched a $1 million advertising campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina attacking Paul for being soft on national security and, specifically, soft on Iran. Paul’s candidacy and the quick response by Republican hawks lays open what may be a significant divide in the party over foreign-policy issues.

There is no doubt that Paul is the most dovish (he would say non-interventionist) mainstream Republican candidate in many years. But it is not quite as simple as suggesting that Paul is on one side of the issues and the other candidates or potential candidates are on the other side. The choice isn’t between President Obama’s foreign policy and George W. Bush’s. Rather, there is a surprisingly broad range of views this time around.

Start with Rand Paul himself. While clearly less inclined to intervene militarily than other Republican candidates, Paul is clearly not in the same foreign-policy camp as his father. At the very least, he appears to have shifted to a more nuanced stance as he prepared his candidacy. Perhaps his current position can be best summed up by his statement: “America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate. America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory. America shouldn’t fight wars that aren’t authorized by the American people. . . . America should and will fight wars when the consequences — intended and unintended — are worth the sacrifice.” And Paul also declares: “The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.” He recently proposed a $160 billion increase in defense spending over ten years, paid for by cuts in foreign aid and domestic spending.

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On specific issues, one can see the delicate balancing act that Paul is trying to pull off. He has been among the most vehement congressional critics of President Obama’s intervention in Libya, and has been generally opposed to intervening in Syria, blaming our policies in that country (and in Iraq) for helping to give rise to ISIS. Still he has called for military action against ISIS. On Iran, Paul has generally been more supportive of the nuclear negotiations than other Republicans, but he has also said that if diplomacy fails “all options are on the table, and that would include military.” In his announcement speech he criticized the Obama administration for “negotiating from a position of weakness,” and said he would vote against an agreement that did not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

On the home front, Paul is known, of course, for leading the fight against NSA surveillance programs and other threats to civil liberties under the rubric of the war on terror. He has not backed down from this position, promising to end such programs on the first day of his presidency. And everyone recalls his filibuster about the domestic use of drones.

On the other end of the spectrum, Senator Marco Rubio, who plans to announce his candidacy next week, has been perhaps the biggest hawk among GOP candidates. Rubio has supported intervention in a variety of hotspots around the world. For example, he supported the Libya intervention, although he was sharply critical of the way the Obama administration conducted it; he would have backed a much bigger and stronger U.S. effort. “Had the U.S. engaged fully and decisively, the conflict would have ended sooner. We would have less independent militias — and it would have been easier for a central government to take root and become in control of the country.” Similarly, on Syria he has called for the U.S. to be “fully engaged in arming, training, and equipping non-jihadist Syrian rebels,” both to resist ISIS and to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. He is a co-sponsor of John McCain’s Free Syria Act, which would arm and train Syrian rebels.

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Rubio, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been extremely critical of President Obama’s negotiations with Iran. In fact, he has generally opposed the idea of negotiations, saying that the American “message to Iran should be clear: until the regime chooses a different path, the United States will continue to isolate Iran and impose pressure.”

In contrast to Paul, Rubio has been a supporter of NSA surveillance programs and the PATRIOT Act. He has called for a “permanent extension of the counterterrorism tools our intelligence community relies on to keep the American people safe.”

#related#Ted Cruz falls somewhere in between Paul and Rubio. He says: “One of the most troubling aspects of the last six years is that America has receded from leadership in the world, and it has created a vacuum, and into that vacuum has stepped nations like Iran, like Russia, like China. It’s made the world much more dangerous.”

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But his positions are not reflexively hawkish. While supporting a muscular military and showing a willingness to intervene abroad, Cruz has opposed “nation building,” as well as interventions that he believed were not in America’s national interest. He says that the United States should not be trying to “build democratic utopias across the world” and that the job of the military is to “hunt down and kill our enemies.”

He has favored more vigorous action against ISIS, but has been skeptical about putting American boots on the ground. Instead he would more aggressively arm and train the Kurds, among others. He opposed military action against al-Assad in Syria, and was skeptical about U.S. intervention in Libya. On the other hand, he has been one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in Congress. On Iran, he has sponsored legislation to strengthen sanctions and has called for the next president to repudiate any agreement that does not end Iran’s nuclear program.

Although he wouldn’t go as far as Paul in reining in NSA abuses, he has been critical of the agency’s domestic-surveillance programs, and he voted for the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the bulk collection of metadata and increased oversight and transparency. (Paul voted against that bill, saying it did not go far enough toward reforming the NSA. Rubio also voted against it, but warning that it went too far.)

Governors running for president have far less opportunity to build a foreign-policy track record. Still, we know enough, for example, to put Jeb Bush firmly in the hawk camp. “America does not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world,” Bush has said. “Our security, and our prosperity, and our values demand that we remain engaged and involved in often distant places.”

A strong supporter of his brother’s foreign policy, Bush has called for tougher U.S. action against ISIS, although he has said, “that doesn’t necessarily mean boots on the ground.” On Iran, Bush has blasted the framework deal as a “flawed agreement” and said it poses a grave threat to the security of Israel. 

He has been an outspoken supporter of NSA surveillance, which, he says, “contributes to awareness of potential terrorist cells and interdiction efforts on a global scale. For the life of me, I don’t understand [how] the debate has gotten off track, where we’re not understanding and protecting — we do protect our civil liberties, but this is a hugely important program to use these technologies to keep us safe.”

Scott Walker, too, has taken a hawkish stance on foreign policy, going so far as to say, “Ultimately we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that’s what it takes” to defeat ISIS. Walker has had relatively little opportunity so far to speak about the deal with Iran, but what he has said has been critical. On civil liberties and surveillance, he has been reluctant to take a position, saying that he lacked the expertise to comment, and that “I honestly don’t know that you could paint me in either camp.”

Also calling for American boots on the ground to fight ISIS is former Texas governor Rick Perry. Perry also backs U.S. training and weapons for Syrian rebels. Perry says that, if elected, he would repudiate any nuclear deal with Iran.

Ben Carson is just beginning to comment on foreign policy, but he has leaned hawkish. On ISIS, he is open to the use of U.S. troops, telling NBC News, “We have to eradicate [ISIS] now. We have to use every means possible to do that.” He has also threatened military action that would make Iran “nonexistent” if it developed a nuclear weapon.

The GOP is still the party of a strong military and an activist foreign policy, but there is a growing debate about exactly what that means. As the campaign develops — in particular as the governors and those outside government become more involved with the issue — that debate is apt to play an increasingly important role in the campaign.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.


Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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