Most presidential campaigns focus mostly on domestic issues such as the economy, taxes and healthcare, not foreign policy.
But the 2016 presidential campaign is already shaping up to be an exception to that rule.
But Republicans haven’t quite worked out what their foreign policy ought to be, beyond “not Obama.”
That’s partly because it’s still early in the campaign and the GOP boasts a crop of potential candidates, some of them governors who never needed a foreign policy.
It’s also because one probable GOP candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has already broken from the pack and argued for a minimalist foreign policy with lower defense spending and fewer military commitments. Some of Paul’s opponents have charged that his views add up to isolationism; the senator prefers “conservative realism.”
But the debate isn’t only about Paul. Ever since President George W. Bush’s long misadventure in Iraq, his Republican successors have been struggling to refashion conservative foreign policy in a way most voters would embrace.
Divisions have emerged over many issues (sanctions in Iran, arms for Ukraine, trade with Cuba) but the crucial question in the campaign will probably be military intervention in the Middle East, the terrain on which the last Republican administration came to grief. If airstrikes alone aren’t enough to defeat Islamic State, should ground troops be deployed? And should the United States do more to dislodge the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, including aid to Syrian rebels, airstrikes and ground troops?
Three rough camps among potential Republican candidates can be discerned. There are interventionists, who want the United States to do more. There’s the lone anti-interventionist, Paul. And, in between, there’s a big group of straddlers who say they would be tougher than Obama but, when pressed, don’t offer much in the way of specifics.
The interventionists include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has called for more U.S. aid to Syrian rebels. Last week, he dismissed Obama’s request for authorization to fight Islamic State as too limited and suggested he would delete Obama’s proposed prohibition on long-term ground combat. “I think we ought to authorize the president to destroy ISIL, period,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The straddlers include Sen. Ted Cruz, who has demanded that the Obama administration fight its wars more aggressively but has also said he sees no need for ground troops. Last week, when Obama requested authorization for the air war in Iraq and Syria, Cruz sidestepped the question and said the main defect of Obama’s request was that it failed to identify the adversary as “Islamic terrorists.”
Paul ducked questions last week about Obama’s request — perhaps because it came uncomfortably close to a proposal he made last year that prohibited using U.S. troops in ground combat.
It’s not unusual for a political party to divide over foreign policy.
“This debate has been going on for a century,” Richard Norton Smith, a noted historian of the GOP, told me. “It isn’t snide to suggest that modern libertarians are the heirs of the old isolationists.” The last time isolationists battled internationalists for the soul of the GOP, it was a very different era — around 1950, at the end of the 20-year-long, five-term Democratic presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
This time, the debate isn’t over how to handle a world transformed by a war the United States won; it’s about the legacy of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and a war most people think we lost.
DOYLE McMANUS -TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE