GOP field heavy on hawks, light on experience

Story highlights

  • Republican candidates see it as a no-brainer to slam Obama over Iran, ISIS and Russia
  • GOP candidates believe voters are insecure and want a clearer vision than Obama's nuanced version of the world
  • They must overcome Hillary Clinton's credentials as a former secretary of state, senator and first lady

Washington (CNN)Republicans are reaching for a trusted trump card in their quest to take back the White House -- blasting Democrats as feckless on foreign policy.

But the GOP's strategy carries significant risks, not least because its candidates, though bristling with hawkish rhetoric, are notably short of hands-on foreign policy experience.
Still, the party's presidential candidates see it as a no-brainer to slam the Obama era as a time when America has snubbed its friends to talk to foes such as Iran, staged Middle East retreats that spawned ISIS and other unsavory foes and emboldened adversaries such as Russia's Vladimir Putin by ignoring red lines.
    It's an especially attractive strategy because the economy -- often the top issue in presidential campaigns -- is healing, and the likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, can be painted as the heir of what the GOP considers President Barack Obama's disastrous foreign policy.
    "When the economy is less of an issue and there's a lack of stability in the world, then security becomes a huge issue," said Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor who served as Mitt Romney's transition chief during the latter stages of his 2012 campaign.
    "We find ourselves in a situation with an imperfect but improving economy, but a lot of conflict in the world."
    For decades, Republicans torched Democrats in presidential elections as weak on national security. But the Iraq debacle robbed the GOP of that trick, and Obama turned the tables in 2008 and 2012.
    Now the GOP wants its big stick back.

    Clinton's national security credentials

    However, to get it back, the party will have to rely on candidates that don't come close to having the national security credentials of Clinton, a former secretary of state, senator and first lady. Of the dozen-odd Republican politicians making signs of running, only a few senators can credibly claim in-depth work on foreign policy issues, and even they haven't made executive decisions on par with what the presidency involves.
    And after an election in 2008 when voters were willing to choose the candidate with considerably less foreign policy experience -- Obama over Arizona senator and former POW John McCain -- Americans may come to a different conclusion in 2016 if they are discontented enough with the current state of international affairs.
    Candidates such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Rick Perry believe a bewildering brew of instability, extremism and challenges to U.S. power from the Middle East to post-Soviet Europe means voters are insecure and want a clearer vision than Obama's nuanced version of the world -- and that they can provide that, regardless of their resumes.
    In the conservative foreign policy establishment, which is fuming over Obama's deal-making with Iran and Cuba and his estrangement with Israel, people think that bold leadership skills may be more important than the breadth of a candidate's foreign policy experience.
    "What they are going to say is that Obama was weak and vacillating and inconsistent dealing with problems," said Lawrence Korb, a national security expert who worked for Republican President Ronald Reagan and now is with the progressive Center for American Progress.
    Polls validate the GOP's view that there's an opening on foreign policy even if it's not clear whether the nation is ready to trust Republicans with the nation's safety again.
    Americans seem spooked by ISIS and worried the nation could get sucked into another Middle Eastern war.
    A Fox News survey last month showed 55% of registered voters nationwide disapprove of Obama's handling of foreign policy. A Pew Forum poll in August 2014 indicated nearly the same number of Americans believes that he is "not tough enough."
    Disapproval rockets among registered Republicans, with 82% disagreeing with Obama's handling of foreign policy in the Fox poll. So it's no wonder the GOP is getting hawkish.
    "The Middle East is on fire ... God help us all," said Lindsey Graham, South Carolina senator and potential GOP candidate last month.
    Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another potential candidate, complained in February that "with grandiosity" the administration announces resets, then disengages.
    And if you follow the money in Republican politics, it often leads to foreign policy.
    A new super PAC, the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, is spending $1 million to air ads in early primary states accusing Kentucky's Paul of being as "soft" on Iran nuclear talks as Obama.
    John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is also raising money for his own pair of political groups, which he'll use to defend hawkish GOP incumbents in House and Senate races and nudge GOP candidates to the right on foreign policy.
    But there's an inherent complication in the GOP's national security push that Democrats will exploit.
    The GOP has a strong incentive to nominate an outsider to run a change campaign against unpopular, gridlocked Washington. Candidates from the gubernatorial ranks -- Bush, Perry and Scott Walker of Wisconsin -- seem to fit the bill.
    But governors carry a built-in liability: no foreign policy experience. And running a campaign focusing on global chaos with a national security neophyte could be a big risk.
    To mitigate against that, Perry, Walker and Bush tout experience with their state's national guard units, which shouldered heavy burdens in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    When asked for details on his foreign policy background, Walker's Our American Revival PAC cited daily briefings with national security experts advising his prospective presidential campaign, including former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent; Walker's appearances at troop deployments and military funerals; and FBI briefings on security threats to Wisconsin.
    Perry is one of only two candidates in the field who has served in the military. He also emphasized his deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to staunch illegal immigration across the southern border as evidence of his national security capabilities.

    The Bush foreign policy legacy

    Bush, of course, must deal with his brother George W. Bush's unpopular foreign policy legacy, though that hasn't kept him from staking out positions that seem closer to the neoconservative powerbase in the party than the realist school of his father, George H.W. Bush.
    Despite a long list of Republican foreign policy advisers, Bush has a relatively slim resume on foreign policy beyond his international business endeavors and his studies in Mexico one summer.
    Conscious of their exposure, governors make strenuous attempts to get up to speed on foreign policy. But sometimes things go wrong. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal upset Britain this year by claiming it harbored Muslim "no go" zones. Romney's campaign trip abroad in 2012 was a disaster.
    Meanwhile, Walker's recent claim, when asked how he would handle ISIS, that if he could take on "100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe" drew ridicule. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was mocked when he reportedly said that Putin would not push him around "given who I am."
    The governors' lack of foreign and military experience potentially creates an opening in the Republican field for someone to claim the national security mantle. This opening seems to be part of what's informing Graham's exploration, as he has long made national security a central part of his political platform. Indeed, the GOP's crop of would-be presidents in the Senate, who have long paper trails if not necessarily applied experience on foreign policy, are happy to point out the perils of picking a governor.
    "The most important obligation of the federal government is our national security, and I think that is something that is very difficult to acquire experience or in-depth knowledge (of) when you are governor. You just don't deal with those issues," Rubio told WHO-TV in Iowa in February.
    "You can obviously be briefed by experts, you can take some trips abroad, but I think this election has the potential to really be geared towards national security issues. I feel very comfortable in my knowledge and my experience on those issues."
    Democrats beg to differ with Rubio's assessment of his own expertise.
    In a fiery exchange in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, Secretary of State John Kerry slapped him down over his claim that the administration kept Sunni allies in the dark over Iran nuclear negotiations.
    "That is flat wrong," Kerry said.
    But keynote speeches and committee assignments do not an expert make.
    James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that because many of the candidates' resumes are so thin, they need to tread carefully.
    "The goal on defense and foreign policy is not to lose votes," he said.
    "People want somebody that's going to be competent, someone they can trust."

    Republican alternatives

    Some Republicans believe that neither Obama nor the GOP candidates are offering a comprehensive choice on foreign policy.
    Virginia's former Gov. Jim Gilmore, an erstwhile Army counterintelligence officer in Europe who has also chaired a commission on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, is thinking of making a long-shot presidential run, reasoning that there's no Republican with the requisite foreign policy and executive experience in the field.
    Gilmore wants a return to "conservative internationalism," which he said would shy away from ventures like Bush's pre-emptive invasion of Iraq but reverse what he sees as Obama's retreats and isolationism.
    "We have to have a third way," Gilmore said. "All the foreign policy discussion in the U.S. is centered around the two extremes. The neocons on one side that want to be militarily engaged very quickly and every often. Then you have the neo-isolationists on the other side (who want to) pull back and not intervene."
    While the Republicans haven't yet laid out detailed policies, one thing they all agree on is that Clinton is not qualified to run American foreign policy.
    "The fact that Hillary [Clinton] is the all-but-likely Democratic nominee makes foreign policy even more important," said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under George W. Bush, "because of her poor record as secretary of state -- in particular in presiding over the challenges in the Middle East, which is falling apart."
    Paul has long argued Clinton was negligent over the death of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in Benghazi and charged that "Hillary's war" in the North African country has made America less safe.
    At the same Conservative Political Action Conference where Paul spoke, another potential GOP candidate, Carly Fiorina, said: "Mrs. Clinton, name an accomplishment."
    But Clinton does hold at least one significant advantage over the GOP field: direct experience.
    She will play up her visits to 112 nations and the nearly 1 million miles she traveled as secretary of state, while touting her role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, management of treacherous relations with Pakistan and stewardship of America's changing role with a rising Asia.
    She also carved out a reputation as a critic of the Bush administration's management of the Iraq war on the Senate Armed Services Committee and took a proactive role hosting foreign leaders and giving speeches as first lady between 1993 and 2001.
    And whoever wins in 2016 may soon find that the sound and fury of the campaign trail has little bearing on what they actually do -- after all, George W. Bush promised not to be a global cop in 2000 before the 9/11 attacks turned his approach upside down.
    "What the world may look like the day you walk into office may be very different from what it looks like now," said Carafano.