After seven years of President Obama's "leading from behind" approach to foreign policy, Republicans are ready for a commander in chief that will reassert U.S. global leadership. Or are they?
Ten weeks before the first votes of the presidential primary are cast in Iowa, Donald Trump continues to lead in the race for the GOP nomination. And beyond the billionaire businessman's bluster, exemplified by his vow to "bomb the shit out of" the Islamic State, is a candidate who sounds very much like Obama — and Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican who also is running for president — and very little like a traditional, conservative hawk.
Obama often advocates for reducing the U.S. military footprint overseas so that Washington can focus on investing and rebuilding infrastructure "here at home." So does Trump. Paul regularly questions America's role as the West's global guarantor of security, urging a "noninterventionist" foreign policy tailored to homeland defense. So does Trump. Indeed, Trump has gone further than Obama or Paul in challenging the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has held since World War II.
Here's how Heritage Action for America, the conservative advocacy organization affiliated with the Heritage Foundation think tank (and no friend of the Republican establishment) summarized Trump's foreign policy in its presidential platform review of all of the GOP candidates: "Trump has suggested that he would project American strength abroad, but his unconventional foreign policy prescriptions raise more questions of significant consequence than they answer."
The Trump campaign requested that questions for this story be posed in an email but had not responded with answers by Monday evening at press time.
National security was a hot topic in the Republican primary before Islamic State radicals struck Paris with coordinated terrorist attacks. The deadly Nov. 13 strikes only served to elevate the issue as a priority for GOP voters. So far, public opinion polling shows that the shift has benefited Trump. His lead nationally, and in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, has strengthened, despite his lack of foreign policy experience.
Trump's vision for U.S. foreign policy, as he has described it, can be inconsistent (and, his critics might add, incoherent).
Last week, he made waves by suggesting that extra-constitutional measures should be taken to surveil Muslims in the U.S. The New Yorker likes to describe himself as "militaristic," and occasionally sounds like a muscular Republican, modeled after President Reagan. Trump, who has advocated military action in Iraq and Syria to dismantle the Islamic State, says he would invest heavily in the military, and strenuously opposed Obama's nuclear deal with Iran.
But in September, during the Republican debate hosted by CNN, the real estate mogul and reality television star suggested that he would be disinclined to use force against the Islamic State. "Syria's a mess. You look at what's going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we're fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants," he said.
"Trump gives a real credible threat of military action but he so far hasn't been able to articulate a strategy other than being annoyed by some countries and overly loving others," said Richard Grenell, a Republican foreign policy adviser who is neutral in the 2016 primary. "He needs a national security strategy in order for people to understand that he is a serious candidate."
An examination of dozens of interviews Trump has given since announcing for president in June, in addition to transcripts of the first four televised Republican debates, reveals rhetoric and philosophy that are boilerplate liberal fare and could have easily have been dispensed by Obama. Meanwhile, even Paul, the Kentucky senator and champion of the GOPs' libertarian faction, hasn't gone as far as Trump in suggesting the U.S. pull out of longstanding military alliances.
Here is some of what Trump told conservative radio talk show host and CNN debate panelist Hugh Hewitt during an Aug. 12 radio interview when asked for how he would handle China's territorial claims to international waters in the South China Sea and Russia's invasion of Ukraine:
"I flew to China not too long ago, and I was on a plane for 21 hours. That's a long, long ways away. And at some point, we are going to have to stop being the policemen of the world ... At what point do we say Germany, you know what, you better start handling Ukraine, because we have enough to do. We have to rebuild our country, Hugh. Our infrastructure is dead, our roads, our highways, our airports, our schools."
Here's Trump on Aug. 21, during a speech in Alabama, appearing to question the legitimacy and value of a U.S. alliance with South Korea that has lasted for more than half a century and includes the stationing of American troops along the border with North Korea to protect South Korea from an invasion from the north. Trump also questioned U.S. security alliance with Japan, a staple of U.S. foreign policy and power in Asia since WWII.
"Recently I ordered 4,000 television sets from South Korea. Whether it's Samsung, or Sharp, or LG — or any of them. They're all made in South Korea … So, now I see North Korea is acting up. So, I see that we're sending ships and we're getting our troops ready — we have 28,000 troops over there — and we're getting ready, just in case Bob, we're going to fight, we're going to protect — we get nothing. We get nothing. What do we get? We get nothing … we defend Japan. You know, we have an agreement with Japan, where if somebody attacks Japan we have to come to their rescue, but if we get attacked Japan doesn't have to help us."
And, here's Trump describing how he would handle Obama's deal with Iran that seeks to delay Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons for at least a decade, during an August interview with Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press." What's notable is that Trump's approach is similar to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Obama's former secretary of state said she would closely monitor the Iranians for any breach; so does Trump.
Republican hawks like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida have vowed to pull the U.S. out of the deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran.
"… But I'm really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that even if they're bad. I would police that contract so tough that they don't have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract," Trump said. "It's very hard to say, 'We're ripping up.'"
For Republicans who are paying attention, and want to see the next GOP president re-establish an aggressive U.S. foreign policy that reassures allies and worries foes, Trump might not quite measure up.
John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and noted hawk, declined to comment specifically on Trump during a brief telephone interview with the Washington Examiner. But Bolton was critical of the message, espoused in the past by Obama, that the U.S. should lighten commitments abroad in order to free up resources for "nation building" at home. Bolton also said that receding from strategic alliances would weaken U.S. national security.
"The approach that you've outlined that they take, which is accurate, is very shortsighted because it assumes you can ignore what's going on overseas in favor of domestic priorities and not have any negative impact," Bolton said. "I really do think this is a critical element of the 2016 debate, to understand the relationship between a strong American presence in the world and a vibrant sustained freedom here at home."