Is a New Republican Foreign Policy Emerging?

Commentary Magazine

Digital: JAN 14, 2016

Print: FEB 2016

Ever since the end of the Cold War, pundits and self-styled sages have predicted that isolationism would emerge as a potent force in the Republican Party. Those expectations were heightened after the early disasters of the Iraq War, which gave rise to a powerful anti-interventionist tide that swept Barack Obama into the White House. In 2012, the Texas congressman Ron Paul emerged as the standard-bearer for this new GOP isolationism with a grassroots presidential campaign that raised an astonishing $38 million from small donors. After 2012, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky took the baton from his father, and in October 2014, Time put Rand on its cover with the question: “Can he fix what ails the GOP?” Little more than a year later, we know the answer is no. Whatever ailments the Republican Party may have, Rand Paul isn’t going to fix them. His 2016 presidential bid never reached takeoff speed.

 What happened? ISIS happened. Having seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and having proclaimed itself a caliphate, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq began beheading American hostages on television in the summer of 2014. The public immediately forgot that it was supposed to be war-weary and began calling for a vigorous response. Even President Obama, who had staked his presidency on pulling back from the Middle East, was forced to begin bombing ISIS and to send American troops back to Iraq to train security forces that would fight the terrorist group.

But while the rise of ISIS put paid to Rand Paul’s stand on behalf of what he calls “non-interventionism,” it has not compelled the party’s other presidential candidates to coalesce around the foreign-policy ideals that have characterized the GOP since the rise of Ronald Reagan—the full-throated assertion of America’s role as a champion of freedom and democracy, a pillar of military strength, and the leader of the Free World.

Indeed, if one measures by the polls taken through early January, the two leading Republican presidential candidates—Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—have been carving out for themselves a radically different foreign-policy niche. Now, Trump and Cruz do not agree on everything. But for the most part they have been in sync, if for no other reason than Cruz’s determination to woo Trump’s voters if and when Trump himself fades from the scene. It is therefore possible to detect the outlines of what might be called a Trump-Cruz foreign policy. Cruz has outlined the more intellectual and nuanced version of this approach, while Trump has been more emotive and extreme.

It is something new—and something very old.

One central element of both campaigns is an opposition to nation-building or democracy promotion in favor of using force quickly, antiseptically, and decisively.

It is not clear how long the two men have espoused this view. In 2004, when Cruz was solicitor general of Texas, he proclaimed his support for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign: “President Bush is proud to defend America, to stand up for her values, and to confront enemies wherever they may lurk.” But by 2012, when he was running for a Senate seat in Texas, Cruz was already saying of Iraq and Afghanistan: “It made sense to go in, and we stayed there too long.” In a June 2012 debate, Cruz voiced his opposition to “nation-building” and to America acting as “the world’s policeman.” The job of the U.S. military, he argued, is to “hunt down and kill our enemies, not to build democratic utopias around the world.” When we have succeeded in hunting and killing, “we should get the heck out.”

As for Trump, in spite of his claim at a 2015 debate that “I’m the only person up here that fought against going into Iraq,” there is no record that he opposed the Iraq War when it started any more than Cruz did. But Trump did eventually become a vitriolic critic. In 2007, while President Bush was implementing the troop surge that changed the course of the conflict, Trump said, “The war is a total disaster, it’s a catastrophe, nothing less.” He advocated getting out immediately: “How do you get out? You know how you get out?” he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN. “Declare victory and leave.” But Trump, like Cruz, has made quite clear that, in spite of his opposition to the Iraq War, he is no pacifist: “I’m a very militaristic person, but you have to know when to use the military,” he said in another GOP debate.

To assert his “militaristic” credentials (Trump must be one of the few people on earth who thinks that “militaristic” is a positive word), the billionaire candidate has been vying with Cruz to see which man can issue the most blood-curdling threats against ISIS. Echoing the late General Curtis LeMay, Cruz has vowed to bomb ISIS “back into the Stone Age” and to “carpet-bomb them into oblivion.” He has even hinted that he would nuke ISIS: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” When challenged to explain how “carpet-bombing” would be either humane or effective, since most of those killed would be ISIS’s victims, Cruz backpedalled. In a December 15 debate, he compared his plan to the bombing of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War: “The object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” If that’s the case, then he actually favors precise airpower of the kind every president has employed since the early 1990s, not “carpet-bombing.” This highlights a certain slipperiness in Cruz’s rhetoric, which tends to shift with the popular sentiment and comes with more caveats than Trump’s blunter pronouncements.

Cruz has not, at least until recently, advocated sending any U.S. troops to fight ISIS. Instead he has called for arming the Kurds in Iraq as America’s proxy army, even though the Kurds are already receiving weapons and are the first to admit they cannot evict ISIS from Arab areas. “I don’t believe in sending boots on the ground,” Cruz said on November 18. More recently, in a December 10, 2015, speech at the Heritage Foundation, Cruz showed a little more openness to the possibility of using “whatever ground troops are necessary to kill the terrorists and then come home.” But he still makes clear that he wants to avoid any long-term deployment.

For his part, Trump has refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against ISIS. Although opposed to the use of ground troops—he criticized Obama’s deployment of 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria, saying “now those troops have a target on their head”—Trump also promises to inflict devastation: “We will be defeating ISIS big league,” he said in December. As part of his “big league” strategy, Trump has embraced the torture of terrorist suspects even if it doesn’t elicit any information (“they deserve it anyway for what they do to us”) and the killing of terrorists’ families even if it violates international law (“I would be very, very firm with families”).

Like Cruz, Trump wants to rely primarily on airpower. His contribution is to focus on ISIS’s oil fields: “I would bomb the hell out of those oil fields. I wouldn’t send many troops because you won’t need them by the time I’m finished.” In a policy gambit that Cruz wisely has refused to join, Trump has promised to “take the oil” from Iraq and give the proceeds to wounded veterans. Unfortunately for Trump, oil fields cannot be lifted out of the ground with a crane and shipped back to America. Actually taking Iraq’s (or ISIS’s) oil would require stationing a large number of troops to occupy not only the oil fields but also the oil transshipment routes out of Iraq—something that Trump, as an opponent of prolonged ground wars, presumably would oppose.

In addition to their affinity for employing military power at long range, Trump and Cruz share a common distaste for getting involved in the complicated politics of the Middle East. Trump has made clear that he has no objection to letting Russia take the lead in Syria—and this was before Putin praised him, which then led Trump to praise the Russian dictator in return and to defend him from the charge that he had murdered reporters. Trump said in November: “Well, I’m not looking to [create a] quagmire. I’m looking to take the oil. The Middle East is one big, fat quagmire. If you look at the Soviet Union, it used to be the Soviet Union. They essentially went bust and it became Russia, a much smaller version, because of Afghanistan. They spent all their money. Now they’re going into Syria. I’m all for Russia going in and knocking and dropping bombs on ISIS. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have to have exclusivity on that.”

Trump has also advocated supporting the dictator Bashar al-Assad as the lesser evil in Syria: “I don’t like Assad. Who’s going to like Assad? But, we have no idea who these people [are], and what they’re going to be, and what they’re going to represent. They may be far worse than Assad. Look at Libya. Look at Iraq.”

Like Cruz, Trump has denounced nation-building, which he, like Barack Obama, sees as a waste of resources that would be better spent at home: “We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems, our airports and all the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.” In other words, as Obama so often says, “nation-building begins at home.”

Cruz has spoken in virtually identical terms. “In my view, we have no dog in the fight of the Syrian civil war,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. “If the Obama administration and the Washington neocons succeed in toppling Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria.” This, of course, ignores considerable evidence that Assad has not only been complicit in the rise of ISIS (he sponsored its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, when it was attacking U.S. forces in Iraq) but that he has also colluded in its survival by buying oil from ISIS, providing it with electricity, and refraining from attacking it. As long as Assad remains in power, ISIS will have a constituency among the country’s alienated Sunnis.

Cruz has also spoken nostalgically of the deposed and dead autocrats of the region—Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. The Middle East, he suggests, was better off with those dictators in power. “I understand this flies in the face of conventional wisdom that holds that America must always promote democracy at all costs,” Cruz said in a Heritage Foundation speech, even though no one actually says that we must “always promote democracy at all costs.” Not even the most perfervid democracy advocates suggest overthrowing friendly dictators like the kings of Jordan or Saudi Arabia. But that didn’t stop Cruz from engaging in a hyperbolic attack on a caricatured “neocon” position that could have been lifted straight from the writings of Paul Krugman, Patrick J. Buchanan, and Glenn Greenwald. He has inveighed against “these crazy neocons” who supposedly want to “invade every country on earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East.” At the same time, in a head-spinning display of intellectual incoherence, Cruz has cited Jeane J. Kirkpatrick—a neocon if ever there was one—as one of his primary foreign-policy inspirations..

While advocating a minimalist strategy in the Middle East—bombing from afar, supporting local dictators—Trump and Cruz also share a commitment to a new kind of Fortress America. Trump led the way with his promise to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants and to build an impregnable wall between the United States and Mexico that he would somehow get Mexico to pay for. He has also called for creating a database of Muslims in the United States and for monitoring mosques. “We’re going to do things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago,” Trump promised. He wasn’t kidding. In early December, after the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Trump came out with a shocking and probably unconstitutional proposal for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.” (Initially Trump’s spokesmen said the ban would apply to U.S. citizens who were Muslims but later said it wouldn’t.)

Cruz has not gone that far. Indeed, he differs with Trump in one major respect. Cruz has argued for reigning in government surveillance on civil-liberties grounds. In 2013, just before the rise of ISIS, he supported Rand Paul’s filibusters against the National Security Agency’s metadata program (which allowed NSA to monitor phone numbers dialed, not the content of conversations) and against the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens such as terrorist mastermind Anwar al-Awlaki. While being careful to say that he does not agree 100 percent with Paul, Cruz publicly thanked the Kentucky senator for his “passionate defense of liberty.”

Cruz was a leading supporter of the USA Freedom Act, passed in June 2015, which ended the government’s ability to keep a phone-records database. And, like Rand Paul, he continues to warn of the looming threat of Big Brother—“some on both the right and the left,” he has warned, darkly, “want to exploit the current crisis by calling on Americans to surrender our constitutional liberties as the only way to ensure our safety.” In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, however, Cruz took to arguing that the USA Freedom Act actually enhanced the government’s ability to monitor terrorist threats. This prompted a scathing retort from Representative Mike Pompeo, a well-respected member of the House Intelligence Committee who has endorsed Marco Rubio: “Those who today suggest that the USA FREEDOM Act, which gutted the National Security Agency’s (NSA) metadata program, enables the intelligence community to better prevent and investigate threats against the U.S. are lying.”

Trump hasn’t engaged in similar efforts to massage his positions. He has never expressed any ethical or legal qualms about taking “much tougher” and “much stronger” steps to fight terrorism.

While he has not called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, Cruz has not been willing to criticize Trump for his proposal, either, and he has joined in Trump’s call to build a wall along the southern border. Cruz has focused his ire not on Muslim visitors in general but specifically on the supposed threat from Syrian refugees: He has said the U.S. should admit Christians but not Muslims. He also made a big point of criticizing Obama for not labeling the enemy as “radical Islamic terrorism,” allegedly for reasons of “political correctness,” ignoring the fact that George W. Bush, whom no one would ever accuse of being politically correct, was also reluctant to label the terrorist enemy in such terms.

What do these views add up to? Cruz has claimed that his foreign policy is Reaganesque. But on democracy promotion, government surveillance, free trade, and other matters, he has taken stands directly at odds with Reagan’s.1 While Cruz argues in favor of backing dictators—even odious, anti-American dictators like Assad—Reagan helped to ease out of power pro-American dictators in El Salvador, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Reagan was also an ardent free trader. And while Cruz excoriates the National Security Agency, many of its most expansive grants of authority date back to a 1981 executive order signed by President Reagan. Reagan also defended the intelligence community in the 1970s after revelations of abuses, such as widespread wiretapping and letter-opening, that far exceed any charges issued against the NSA today.

But however disruptive the views of Cruz and Trump are, they are not unprecedented. In fact, they are part of a long tradition in American history that Walter Russell Mead has traced back to the Indian-fighting general and president Andrew Jackson. An article Mead published in 1999 in the National Interestabout “The Jacksonian Tradition” makes for fascinating reading for anyone seeking to understand the Trump and Cruz campaigns.

Mead notes that Jacksonianism is an “instinct rather than an ideology,” one that has historically been “associated with white Protestant males of the lower and middle classes—today the least fashionable element in the American political mix.” Jacksonians, Mead writes, oppose “humanitarian interventions” or interventions designed to promote democracy. Jacksonians only want to go to war when America is directly attacked, but then they want to fight all-out: “Indeed, of all the major currents in American society, Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions.” The Jacksonian view of war-fighting was embodied by Curtis LeMay, who said: “I’ll tell you what war is about. You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough, they stop fighting.” But, while willing to slaughter the enemy, Jacksonians are wary of enduring military commitments: They want “to impose our will on the enemy with as few American casualties as possible,” and then bring our forces home.

Jacksonians are also “instinctively protectionist,” Mead continues, and “skeptical, on both cultural and economic grounds, of the benefits of immigration, which is seen as endangering the cohesion of the folk community and introducing new, low-wage competition for jobs.”

There is, according to Mead, one other important part of the Jacksonian worldview: “The fear of a ruthless, formidable enemy abroad who enjoys a powerful fifth column in the United States.” For a century, Jacksonians saw “Papists” (i.e., Catholics) as that enemy. After 1945, it was Communism. Writing after the end of the Cold War and before 9/11, Mead noted that the Jacksonian “paranoid streak” lacked an outlet save in opposition to “globalization.” But since the rise of al-Qaeda and now ISIS, Jacksonians have found a new group that they believe to be an “emissary of Satan on earth”: radical Muslims or, sometimes, in their cruder moments, all Muslims.

While many Republican presidents have embodied elements of the Jacksonian worldview—in particular, the emphasis on fighting wars to win—none has so comprehensively advocated this populist vision as have Cruz and Trump. Both men have turned their backs on decades of Republican foreign policy, which has been internationalist, pro–free trade, pro-immigration, pro-democracy, and pro–human rights. Instead, they have embraced a Jacksonian weltanschauung that in the past has been championed by the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, George Wallace, and Jesse Ventura. The followers of all these men, Mead wrote, wanted “a popular hero to restore government to its proper functions.” Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump look in the mirror and see just such a hero.

Cruz has been fairly explicit in identifying himself with these earlier Jacksonians. He has called for an “America First” foreign policy, echoing the demands of the America First Committee (which advocated isolationism until the attack on Pearl Harbor). And, even though as recently as 2013 he advocated legalizing undocumented immigrants as part of a comprehensive immigration reform, he has now vowed to oppose legalization “today, tomorrow, forever,” echoing George Wallace’s call for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Cruz partisans claim that these historical associations are unintended, but Cruz is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School: It is hard to imagine he uses such evocative phrases without knowing what they evoke.

Cruz has also trafficked in the kind of crude establishment-baiting that has always been a hallmark of Jacksonians—without, it should be noted, the anti-Semitism that has usually been an unsavory accompaniment. (Cruz says he is a strong friend of Israel, although this does not square with his support of Assad, who is in league with Iran and Hezbollah.) Mead notes that Jacksonians believe that “corrupt movements and elites of the Old World” are “relentlessly plotting to destroy American liberty.” Their bogeymen, Mead continues, include “the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderbergers, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers.” As if on cue, during his 2012 Senate campaign in Texas, Cruz denounced the Council on Foreign Relations (where I work) as a “pernicious nest of snakes” that is “working to undermine our sovereignty.” He did not mention that his wife, Heidi, was a term member of the Council.

Donald Trump, billionaire scion of a New York real-estate dynasty, makes an even more unlikely tribune of the people than Ted Cruz, the Ivy League–educated former Supreme Court clerk who is married to a Goldman Sachs managing director. Their shrillness, one suspects, is in direct proportion to their fears that their populism might otherwise be judged inauthentic.

This, then, is the choice confronting Republican primary voters in 2016: Whether to continue the traditional, Reaganesque foreign policy that has been championed by every Republican presidential nominee for decades or to opt for a Jacksonian outlook that is as crude and ugly as it is beguiling.

Cruz and Trump claim they can project power, keep America safe, and destroy our enemies without putting troops into harm’s way or getting embroiled in long, costly occupations or nation-building exercises. They argue that they can defeat our foes simply by killing lots of people, without worrying about setting up more stable governments that will ultimately become American allies.

If only all this were true. But long experience shows that America has been most successful in achieving its objectives in precisely those places—such as Germany, Japan, Italy, South Korea, Bosnia, and Kosovo—where it has kept troops for decades and fostered new regimes to replace the old. Occasionally, as in Grenada or Panama, the U.S. can achieve its objectives and pull out. But in numerous other instances, such as Haiti, Somalia, Lebanon, and Iraq, an overly hasty pullout has sacrificed whatever gains U.S. troops have sought to achieve. Airpower, the favorite tool of both Cruz and Trump, has never been decisive on its own, especially not against an insurgent foe such as the Vietcong or ISIS that lacks significant infrastructure to defend. In counterinsurgencies such as Vietnam or Iraq, the indiscriminate use of firepower actually backfires by killing lots of innocent people and thus creating more enemies than it eliminates.

The Trump/Cruz tendency to demonize Muslims as “the enemy within” is also dangerous: It risks giving ISIS precisely what it wants by alienating Muslims from non-Muslims and creating a sense of aggrievement of the kind that has already driven a small but significant minority of European Muslims to embrace radicalism. It is no surprise to learn that al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgency in Somalia, has been using images of Trump in its recruitment videos. Other terrorist groups are likely to follow suit.

If the Republican Party were to embrace Jacksonianism as its governing creed, it would be calling into question the internationalist credentials that it laboriously reestablished after World War II—and that made possible its return to respectability after the dismal decade of the 1930s. It is neither wise nor effective to try to withdraw behind our homeland defenses while intermittently and violently lashing out at enemies abroad. As we have learned repeatedly, no defense is perfect, and long-range bombing by itself cannot keep us safe. Jacksonianism was bad enough in the 19th century; it is all the more irresponsible in the 21st century, when the oceans provide scant protection and developments half a world away can affect communities as small as San Bernardino and as large as New York.

The Republican Party would be wiser to stick with the foreign policy that has worked since 1945, and that is advocated by all of its leading presidential candidates except Trump and Cruz. This means providing American leadership to the world, maintaining our military strength, policing the global commons (seas, skies, space, cyberspace), engaging in both short and long-term interventions if necessary, promoting free trade, spreading democracy, championing human rights, defending our allies, and subverting our enemies. America must continue to play an active role in shaping the international system in ways conducive to both our interests and our ideals. It must remain a beacon of hope for the world, rather than become a grim, foreboding fortress. If the United States abdicates its international responsibilities, it will pay a heavy price in lost prosperity and security.

1 Trump and Cruz have come out against free trade. Trump has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership a “horrible deal” that “is going to lead to nothing but trouble.” He claims that the TPP will allow “China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone,” even though China is not a party to this treaty. Trump supports a 45 percent tariff on all Chinese-manufactured goods. He also opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993. While most economists say NAFTA has succeeded in bolstering the economies of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico (thereby decreasing incentives for Mexicans to immigrate to the U.S.), Trump calls it a “disaster.” He advocates “fair trade” (code words for protectionism) instead of “free trade.” Indeed, Trump has emerged as the most forceful advocate of tariffs and trade barriers that the Republican Party has seen in the post-1945 era. Cruz doesn’t go quite that far. Just as on immigration, he accepts the basic tenets of Trumpism while presenting himself as slightly more moderate and reasonable. Thus he claims to support free trade in theory while rejecting the TPP, the biggest free-trade pact in the world.

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