Commentary by Wajdi Mallat – 19 February 2012
The Republican Party has for a long time been known as the more credible party on foreign policy in the United States. While the Republicans are typically against heavy spending on government, they have always been adamant that military spending should not be cut. George W. Bush based a large part of his reelection campaign on his and his party’s strength on foreign policy, especially in the difficult times following the attacks of 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. His campaign frequently attacked Democratic candidate John Kerry for being too soft to be able to lead the country. Whether or not the Republican Party has earned its strong reputation on foreign policy is another issue, yet the impression in the United States makes it clear that it is considered the stronger of the two when it comes to foreign relations.
In the 2008 presidential elections, Democrat Barack Obama defeated the moderate Republican candidate John McCain in a landslide victory. The Republican Party was in disarray, fearing for its future when its most moderate candidate could not defeat the Democrats. Different possible solutions for the party crisis arose, but the one that stuck was that the Republican Party had lost its conservative roots. There entered the Tea Party, a group of the most extreme conservatives who believe that the United States is on the wrong path due to the Democrats’ government’s unpatriotic intrusion on the people’s rights. The Tea Party believes that the government has become far too involved in the day-to-day lives of citizens, namely with the healthcare reforms that the Obama administration passed. The Tea Party headed a resurgence of the Republican Party that allowed it to retake the House of Representatives in 2010 and cutting down the Democrats’ control in the Senate.
With the new generation of Republicans, along with no apparent improvement in the economy, it seemed that Obama would surely be a one-term president. This new generation however does not embody the Republican Party’s traditional strength: foreign policy. There is a worrying trend among the new Republicans who do not show any aptitude when it comes to foreign policy; and while it is not likely that one of the more extreme and less knowledgeable candidates ends up in the White House, it poses the question whether the future of the Republican Party will include a strong knowledge of foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis the Middle East.
Most recently, a number of candidates for the Republican nomination have made comments that underline their ineptitude in foreign policy. Former Republican candidate Herman Cain floundered when asked about Libya; he first was unsure of what country Libya was before announcing that he disagreed with Obama’s actions in Libya, yet he could not articulate why he disagreed with the president. He later showed even more ignorance and downright offensiveness in his attempt to explain his poor answer to the Libya question by stating during an interview that hypothetically, he didn’t need to know the president of “uzbeki-beki-stan-stan” to be the commander-in-chief. Cain also stated that the US needed to stop China from acquiring a nuclear weapon. While he never really seemed like a serious candidate and did eventually terminate his campaign, he was a brief frontrunner and only had to pull out due to allegations of sexual misconduct. When one of the leading candidates can survive making such egregious errors on foreign issues, it not only shows a decline in the Republican Party’s reputation as the strong foreign policy party, but also shows less of an interest in mending this dent.
The attempts of the Republican Party to find its conservative successor to the deified Ronald Reagan have cost it dearly on foreign policy. Rick Perry, who also dropped out after an earlier lead in the race for the nomination, recently stated that the soldiers caught urinating on dead Taliban soldiers should not be too harshly punished. Governor Perry’s reaction indicates his lack of awareness that such acts do have far-reaching consequences on the world’s attitude towards other Americans and soldiers. Newt Gingrich, one of the two perceived frontrunners after his primary victory in South Carolina, has stated that he would not have intervened on behalf of the Libyans against Qadhafi, and has also stated that the Palestinians are an “invented people,” with his first act in the Oval Office being the relocation of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ron Paul, the alternative to the mainstream politics of the Republican Party, seems intent on a return to the isolationist policy that dominated the United States after the First World War and limited its direct involvement during World War Two until the attacks on Pearl Harbor. All these candidates have made mistakes or controversial remarks about foreign policy, and while all these statements may be only intended to garner the votes of the most radical of Republican voters, the implications are that the base of the supposedly strong foreign policy party shows little understanding of the dangers of many of these comments to the United States’ standing in the world.
The candidate who is most widely expected to win the nomination of the Republican Party is also the one whose policies are the most ambiguous. Mitt Romney, who has from the beginning been the frontrunner for the nomination, has taken a lot of criticism from his fellow party members for his constant flip-flopping on issues. While he has shown some measures of strength with his adamancy that Bashar al-Assad must end the oppression and massacre of the Syrian people and leave the country, his campaign website’s factsheet also warned of the dangers of increasing Iranian influence in the predominately Sunni countries of Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. The mistake here becomes even more glaring when he neglects to mention the risks of Iranian influence in other countries experiencing uprisings such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that have a considerable Shia population.
Romney has also echoed Gingrich’s calls for complete support of Israel, which can no longer be the United States’ policy if it wants to achieve success in the Middle East. Romney’s support of Israel is almost on the same level as Gingrich’s and the rest of the Republican Party, which has thrown its full support behind Benjamin Netanyahu. Romney strongly criticized Obama firstly for his condemnation of the continued construction of settlements, and secondly for Obama’s policy that the 1967 borders should be the starting point of negotiations. The truth about Romney’s likely nomination is that he will not be as susceptible to errors in judgment on foreign policy, yet he follows party lines on the issue of Israel, which does not harbor much hope for success in future negotiations.
The Republican Party has been known for being the stronger party on foreign policy for a long time, both in the United States and in the world. Their Democrat counterparts always seemed to be too soft and too indecisive, yet the situation seems to be changing. The new Republican presidential candidates have all made mistakes on foreign policy due to their inexperience. They and their fellow party members have also chosen to unequivocally support the Netanyahu government. The implications may not seem as dangerous considering the lack of real movement on the issue of Israel, yet the new Congress, dominated by Republicans, has also given its full support to Netanyahu and the Likud Party.
The Republican Party is at a critical point right now, with its attempts to return to its conservative roots instead leading it down a dangerous path of ignorance in foreign policy. The likelihood of one of the more inexperienced Republican candidates winning the general election seems faint, yet more and more of the Republican candidates for the Party’s nomination are uninformed in foreign policy, which could eventually lead to one actually winning the nomination. The Republican Party has begun tarnishing its reputation as the stronger party on foreign policy, and its members’ statements and actions have painted a worrying picture for the United States’ future as one of the great powers of the world.
Wajdi Mallat is a first-year student at the University of Michigan. He tweets @wajdicm.