Is Trump a realist? Leon Hadar considers the evidence and concludes that he isn’t.
End U.S. support for the war in Yemen. Emma Ashford calls on the Obama administration to halt its support for the Saudi-led coalition.
Inconsistent impatience on Cuba. Paul Pillar chides critics of normalization with Cuba for their haste to declare engagement a failure.
Sanders shouldn’t get a free pass on foreign policy. Daniel DePetris explains why it matters that Sanders is neglecting foreign policy in his campaign.
Moldova’s “pro-Western” facade. Natalia Otel Belan and Marc Schleifer explain why it is a mistake for Western governments to dismiss protests against the Moldovan government.
The Democratic debate last night included some discussion of foreign policy, and the two candidates repeated their standard arguments against each other. As he often has before, Sanders keeps bringing up Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq war:
But experience is not the only point, judgment is. And once again, back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way and one of us didn’t.
Sanders tends to use the original Iraq war debate as a crutch when answering any foreign policy question. That reflects the fact that their records on the Iraq war are what most clearly distinguish them, and it also reflects Sanders’ overall lack of interest in the subject. Foreign policy has generally received much less attention in the contest for the Democratic nomination. It isn’t a high priority for most Democratic voters, and both Clinton and Sanders have obliged by saying as little about these issues as they absolutely have to. In Clinton’s case, she has tried to downplay her record of hawkishness in recognition that she is out of step with most Democrats, while Sanders much prefers to focus on the domestic issues that have been his primary concern in Congress.
Clinton leaned heavily last night on the appeal to experience and the support she’s receiving from many former diplomats and national security officials. Clinton wants to present herself as the candidate with the necessary knowledge and preparation to conduct foreign policy, while Sanders is left pointing out how poor Clinton’s judgment has been in the past and how much better his own judgment has been. The foreign policy debate between them follows the larger split in the nomination contest: Clinton professes to be the candidate with the know-how to “get things done” while Sanders argues that he is the one who can be trusted not to compromise or betray Democrats’ values. Just as Obama did in 2007-08, Sanders acknowledges his relative lack of foreign policy experience, and tries to turn it around on Clinton in the same way. The trouble for Sanders is that the Iraq war is not nearly as salient for Democratic voters as it was when Bush was still in office, and it has been long enough since the original debate over the war that Clinton’s bad judgment in supporting the invasion doesn’t generate quite the same resistance to her candidacy.
The differences between the candidates on contemporary issues are frankly much smaller, and there isn’t as much of a sharp contrast on policy that Sanders can use to his advantage. While Clinton and Sanders used to disagree on the TPP and other similar trade deals, Clinton has muddied the waters by feigning opposition to the Pacific trade agreement. Both support the nuclear deal with Iran and normalization with Cuba, and both more or less support administration policy with respect to the war on ISIS. Clinton has argued for even more aggressive measures in Syria, but here the disagreement is over how to intervene in Syria and not whether the U.S. should be fighting there.
The biggest current disagreement between Clinton and Sanders is over eventually pursuing normal relations with Iran. This is to a very large extent a manufactured issue that Clinton has been trying to exploit because she thinks it works to her advantage by making her seem “tougher” and Sanders “weaker” on Iran. At best, they are debating a hypothetical, since neither of them favors normalization with Iran in the near future. One would think it would be unremarkable that Sanders thinks that the U.S. should eventually improve relations with Iran, but Clinton displayed her typical wariness of diplomatic engagement by seeing it as an opening for attack. As Sanders said again last night, he isn’t in favor of immediate or near-term normalization with Iran, but that “we should move forward as quickly as we can.” He then used normalization with Cuba as proof that longstanding enmity and disputes with another state don’t have to rule out restoring diplomatic ties.
Sanders has been faulted recently for not having an established team of foreign policy advisers, and his critics inside the Democratic Party see him as simply not knowing and/or caring enough about foreign policy to be a plausible nominee. These complaints have some merit, but they miss that Clinton remains significantly out of step with most people in her party on these issues and that Sanders is much closer to them. Her instinct to side with her party’s hawks in almost every debate is a serious flaw that has led her to take one bad position after another, and the fact that she seems incapable of learning from those previous mistakes is a major problem. Clinton can speak more fluently about foreign policy details, but it’s not at all obvious that she ever thinks through the consequences of the hawkish policies she reliably supports. Insofar as Sanders is inclined to be more cautious and less eager to entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts, he is not only more representative of most Democrats’ views, but he is also less likely to make costly errors of commission. Clinton may be able to give a more fleshed-out debate answer, but we also know that she is more likely to get the U.S. involved in unnecessary wars than her rival.
Michael Gerson tries to put a positive spin on Rubio’s spectacular immigration failure:
Rubio’s loss on immigration reform spoke well of his ability to appeal broadly in the general election and govern effectively as president. Cruz’s success in forcing a partial shutdown demonstrated only a talent for self-serving controversy.
It’s more than a little odd to say that a total failure reflects an “ability to appeal broadly in the general election.” Rubio rejected the thing that supposedly makes him broadly appealing, and he abandoned the effort as soon as it became politically dangerous for him. As soon as he encountered significant difficulty, he gave up because he didn’t want to jeopardize his ambition for higher office. No matter what one thinks of the legislation, that doesn’t reflect well on Rubio at all. People on both sides on the immigration debate have understood this for years.
Rubio’s embrace of the Gang of Eight bill was certainly self-serving in that he believed it was his ticket to winning the approval of party elites and donors. Little did he know that he would be the favorite of many of them anyway. His subsequent abandonment of the bill was likewise self-serving in that he preferred to protect himself from the backlash against the bill that he had unwisely chosen to support. No one can honestly confuse this with a profile in political courage or something that inspires broad appeal among voters.
Gerson cuts Rubio slack here because he assumes that the senator will return to his support for bad immigration legislation in the future. He expects that Rubio will once again pretend to be against something during an election campaign and then turn around and push for the very thing he promised to oppose, and Gerson has good reason to expect this. This is also why many Republicans can’t fully trust Rubio. Since he switched sides in the debate once before, it is reasonable to assume that he will do so again. Whichever side of that debate is most advantageous to Rubio’s own ambitions is the one he will take, and that should make people on both sides of the issue wary. Gerson’s right about one thing: Rubio’s handling of the immigration bill does tell us a lot about how he would lead. However, it doesn’t tell us anything good.
Larison’s hope for the establishment’s fall is based not on Trump or Cruz or any outsider, but on the dream that boring establishment candidates will suddenly transform into mavericks, acting against the interests of the Party.
I appreciate the response, and I’ll concede up front that I was overstating Kasich’s desire to stick around if he doesn’t do well on Tuesday. His campaign has always been a New Hampshire-centric one, and anything less than second place for him there probably would be a signal to throw in the towel. However, Kasich has said that his campaign will continue unless he gets “smoked” in New Hampshire, and that implies that he might very well stick around for a while if he has a good result. Bush still has the resources and the incredible sense of entitlement that led him to enter the race in the first place, and he seems more determined to continue than Kasich. Bush said earlier this week, “That message will resonate and I’m in it for the long-haul.” Christie probably will drop out after next week unless he has a completely unexpected revival in the next few days, but otherwise I don’t foresee the mass exodus that Rubio is counting on.
One problem with Berlatsky’s objection is the conceit that the other “establishment” candidates accept that withdrawing from the race to clear the way for Rubio is in the “interests of the party.” Both Bush and Christie have dismissed this idea as absurd or silly. Another is that it overlooks the intense personal resentment Rubio seems to have inspired among some of these candidates. Christie is the most vocal in his disdain for the junior senator from Florida, but it’s an open secret that Bush and his allies are also furious with Rubio. We shouldn’t discount the effect of personal animus and bitterness when thinking about what these candidates may do.
If his “establishment” rivals resent Rubio enough, they may not be thinking about “the interests of the party” or they may believe that they are serving the party’s best interests by opposing someone they don’t think is ready to be president. I have occasionally joked that the determination of Bush and his allies to bring Rubio down sometimes seems Captain Ahab-like, because it seems so destructive to Bush’s own reputation. Even if it’s not that intense, it doesn’t make sense to assume that Bush is simply going to give up so that Rubio has a better shot as a nomination that he and his allies thought was his. I think people that expect Bush to give up easily are also forgetting how petty and vindictive the Bush family can be toward their rivals when they want to be.
The larger point I was making in my post about the woes of the “establishment” is that it has already taken too long to consolidate the “establishment” vote. The four-way split in New Hampshire has done plenty of damage to the chances of any of the “establishment” candidates to win anywhere else. If that split disappeared next Wednesday, it wouldn’t be sufficient to salvage Rubio’s bad campaign strategy. There aren’t enough supporters of these candidates to stop Trump and Cruz before it really is too late in mid-March, and by then it won’t matter that Rubio is the last “establishment” man standing. In short, the people rooting for the “establishment” candidates have a serious problem even if Kasich and Bush give up next week.
Santorum’s stint as a Rubio surrogate got off to a shaky start this morning. When pressed to name Rubio’s top accomplishment in the Senate, he couldn’t come up with one:
The former Pennsylvania senator, who dropped his presidential bid Wednesday, told co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski he was supporting Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign because the Florida senator is someone “who can work together with people.” But Santorum struggled to name one accomplishment Rubio has had in the Senate.
It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask about a presidential candidate, and Santorum’s protests that the question wasn’t fair just made things look worse than they were. Complaining that Rubio is part of a do-nothing Congress and therefore hasn’t done anything isn’t much of an excuse. That just reminds people that Rubio is both relatively inexperienced and belongs to the most disliked institution in the country.
Santorum couldn’t come up with anything because there aren’t any accomplishments to be named. This isn’t a case where a new surrogate hasn’t been sufficiently briefed on the minutiae of a candidate’s record. There’s simply nothing that Santorum could have cited as an example, because Rubio doesn’t have any significant legislative accomplishments since he entered the Senate five years ago. Even Obama managed to join up with Richard Lugar on a serious piece of nonproliferation legislation during his brief time in the Senate. Rubio can’t point to anything comparable. Neither can his rival Ted Cruz, whose even shorter Senate career has been defined entirely by obstructionist theatrics.
Cruz is running almost entirely as an ideological message candidate, and Rubio is relying heavily on his biography and family history, and they have to do this because they and their supporters can’t identify any successes they’ve had in their current positions. Maybe voters won’t care about this, but insofar as it reinforces Rubio’s reputation for inexperience and failing to do his job it certainly can’t help. It also has to bring to mind the major piece of immigration legislation Rubio tried to push through before abandoning it. If things had gone as planned, Rubio’s biggest accomplishment in the Senate would have been an immigration bill that most Republicans rejected.
Rick Santorum formally “suspended” his campaign last night and endorsed Rubio, saying that he wanted “to find a candidate that really espoused the values” that he believed in:
“He’s a tremendously gifted young man,” he said of the Florida senator. “I just feel a lot of confidence that he is the new generation and someone that can bring this country together.”
The endorsement won’t help Rubio in next week’s New Hampshire primary, since Santorum has extremely high unfavorability numbers in the state and his support there was virtually non-existent. If anything, being linked with Santorum is more likely to cost Rubio support next week. It is nonetheless a notable and revealing choice for Santorum that merits a few comments. I summed it up this way on Twitter last night:
Santorum posed as champion of working-class voters' interests & reducing immigration, so naturally he sides with pro-amnesty donor favorite
— Daniel Larison (@DanielLarison) February 4, 2016
At least since his first presidential campaign, Santorum has been presenting himself as the voice of working-class voters and arguing that the GOP has neglected them too long. In connection with that, he adopted some of the most restrictionist positions on immigration in the 2012 and 2016 fields. He played at being a quasi-populist in opposition to Romney, and in the years following the 2012 election continued to argue against the mentality in the party that celebrated business owners and no one else. By endorsing Rubio, he made it plain that all of that takes a backseat to supporting an aggressive foreign policy.
Though the endorsement doesn’t matter that much in itself, it is representative of Santorum’s priorities and the distorting effect that super-hawkish foreign policy has on the GOP as a whole. Faced with a choice between candidates that have at least some credibility with conservatives on immigration and those that have none, Santorum chose one of the latter. When choosing between candidate that already gets a lot of their support from working-class voters and one that is the clear favorite of the donor class, Santorum chose the latter. It isn’t an accident that Santorum also happened to back the most hawkish candidate still running, since the former senator has repeatedly shown that it is hard-line foreign policy that matters more to him than anything else.
It’s true that Rubio and Santorum are both socially conservative, but Rubio is not the only credible social conservative left in the race. But the thing they have in common that distinguishes Rubio from his main competition is that he is by far the most vocal and aggressive hawk left. If Santorum and Graham had never run, that would have been true from the start. I’m sure Santorum can’t abide Trump for all sorts of reasons, but his main complaint against Cruz is on foreign policy. Ever since Cruz used “neocon” in a pejorative way last year, Santorum has been attacking Cruz and saying that his use of that word proves that he isn’t a “Reagan national security conservative.” In light of that, it was practically guaranteed that he would end up siding with Rubio. Santorum is confident that Rubio is just as ideological and dangerous on foreign policy as he is, and he has every reason to be.
If realists truly want to make a difference in American foreign policy, however, these objections are small beer. A realist would not necessarily care about the Middle East all that much. There are no great powers in the region, after all. From a realpolitik perspective, the United States should be happy if Russia expends blood and treasure to support proxies and preserve stability there. Which, by the way, is the position of one Donald J. Trump.
In keeping with Drezner’s Star Wars reference, my first thought when reading this is:
I don’t think most realists would see hitching themselves to Trump’s campaign as a way to “make a difference” in U.S. foreign policy debates. In fact, I’m pretty sure they* would conclude that this would be a good way for their ideas to be (further) marginalized and for them to be tarred by association with Trump. Walt describes a Trump presidency as a “leap in the dark,” which is a fair description of it, and Drezner keeps asking why realists don’t want to go take a flying leap. Perhaps because that would be the sort of short-sighted and ill-considered course of action that realists are warning other people against all the time?
Leaving aside some of Trump’s wackier and ill-informed statements about the nuclear deal, Yemen, etc., what would give realists any confidence that Trump would be a good bet with respect to managing great power relations? That touches on Walt’s point about competence, but it goes beyond that. While it’s good that Trump isn’t interested in fighting Russia over Syria (and it is a damning indictment of the other candidates that he is virtually alone in this), I don’t get the impression that he would be all that interested in reducing or managing tensions with great powers as a general rule. One of the running themes in Trump’s speeches is the desire to “beat” other countries, specifically China, so my guess is that a Trump presidency** would see a dramatic worsening of U.S.-Chinese relations and the raising of tensions in East Asia. How would he manage relations with the EU, India, Brazil, Australia, etc.? What is his position on the war in Afghanistan? Does he subscribe to the “no daylight” approach to managing allies and clients? Does he favor further NATO expansion? We have no idea, and Trump doesn’t seem inclined to give us many clues.
We have only the barest outlines of what Trumps wants to do, and much of what we do know is not reassuring. The only reason that this idea of Trump-as-realist is even being entertained at all is that every other presidential candidate is arguably even more irresponsible and reckless on foreign policy than Trump is. Maybe one could make the argument that Trump is the least awful candidate for realists, but that’s not saying a lot.
Realists also have the benefit of seeing what happens to vaguely realist-sounding candidates when they get into office. George W. Bush ran in 2000 espousing a “humble” foreign policy, eschewed nation-building, and talked up the need to improve relations with other great powers. In short, he said many things that realists could agree with, or at least avoided saying a lot of things they couldn’t accept, but he was also famously ignorant and incurious about the rest of the world. When there was a crisis, all of Bush’s supposed humility regarding the use of U.S. power disappeared instantly, and he and his advisers embarked on some of the costliest, most reckless policies in modern American history. Bush did all this while being surrounded by veterans of his father’s administration, who not only failed to restrain his worst instincts but also actively encouraged him to make bad decisions. In the event of a crisis, does anyone trust that someone with Trump’s temperament and fixation with “strength” wouldn’t do much the same or worse? If not, why would it be a good idea for people that care about the smart conduct of foreign policy to support him?
It occurred to me yesterday that Trump is the embodiment of everything that George Kennan disliked about mass democratic politics, so it probably shouldn’t come as a shock that a lot of the people that respect Kennan’s judgment aren’t fans of Trump.
* I don’t consider myself a realist, but I’m often counted as one and I’m sympathetic to many of their arguments.
** This isn’t likely to happen, but for the sake of argument let’s imagine that it does.
Rand Paul has announced he’s dropping out of the presidential race:
Republican Sen. Rand Paul dropped his 2016 campaign for president Wednesday, eclipsed by other candidates who kept his base of support from growing into a viable force in the crowded 2016 field.
I’m a little surprised that he decided to do this before New Hampshire, but it makes sense for him to turn his attention to the Senate race in Kentucky. It matters more now for the causes he cares about that he be re-elected to the Senate, and continuing as an also-ran in the presidential race wouldn’t accomplish anything. It’s unfortunate that his presidential campaign didn’t have more success. In a cycle that included both Trump and Cruz, there was too much competition for Republican voters disgusted by their party leadership, and their demagogic style seems to have been better-suited to the mood of these voters. Paul made some good contributions in the presidential debates, and he was practically the only one challenging the party’s dangerous hawkish consensus, but that was evidently not what most Republicans were looking for in this election.
If Paul’s supporters are going to go to any other candidates, they would most likely prefer Cruz. That ought to help Cruz in his bid to hang on to second place there, which would confirm that the real contest going into the rest of February will be between Trump and Cruz. Perhaps some of Paul’s supporters will vote tactically for some of the non-Rubio “establishment” candidates to try to push them ahead of Rubio.
On Monday I gave some reasons why foreign policy realists might not be interested in supporting Donald Trump. Leon Hadar delves deeper into the question today and concludes that Trump isn’t a realist:
But then Trump’s bombastic rhetoric doesn’t reflect any coherent foreign policy agenda, and certainly not one that could be described as “realist.” He seems to be telling us what he won’t do as opposed to what he would do as commander-in-chief, and he never really explains his own definition of the U.S. national interest and what U.S. geostrategic goals should be. Should the United States reduce its military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere? What role should the United States play now in East Asia? If he is opposed to the nuclear deal with Iran, does he believe that the United States should use its military power to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring access to nuclear capabilities? And what is so “realist” about the idea of bombing ISIS if you cannot explain what would replace it? Bombing is a means to achieve a goal, and Trump has yet to clarify his strategic goals in Syria and Iraq.
Trump doesn’t provide any answers to these and other questions and is basically telling us that we should trust him to make the right choices. And we cannot direct those questions to his foreign policy advisors since he has none.
There have been a few attempts in recent weeks to try to shoehorn Trump into different foreign policy traditions, but these always give Trump’s views more coherence than they have. Thomas Wright tried to paint Trump as a latter-day Robert Taft, which seems both inaccurate and more than a little insulting to Taft. Wright also asserted:
Trump seeks nothing less than ending the U.S.-led liberal order and freeing America from its international commitments.
It would certainly be notable if Trump sought this, but Wright doesn’t have much evidence that this is so. Trump often complains about wealthy allies that aren’t obliged to do anything for the U.S., so he isn’t pleased with “cheap-riding” allies, but he never suggests that the U.S. should abrogate treaty commitments or refuse to defend allies. Trump doesn’t like arrangements from which the U.S. doesn’t derive tangible benefits, and so he complains when the U.S. is picking up the entire tab for defending allies, but nowhere in his statements can one find proof that he thinks the U.S. should actually have fewer commitments around the world. His statements do suggest that he thinks wealthy allies should do more to provide for their own defense, but saying that is a long way from believing that the U.S. should abandon most or all of its security commitments. Wright credits Trump with wanting a much more significant departure from postwar foreign policy than Trump appears to want. I’ve said before that Trump can’t be fairly described as an “isolationist”: the label is a meaningless slur, and there isn’t much evidence to support the idea that he favors a dramatically less activist and meddlesome foreign policy. If there’s one consistent theme in Trump’s thinking, it’s that he doesn’t want America to be on the losing end of a bargain, but that can cut any number of ways when it comes to making policy.
Take the nuclear deal, for example. Trump regularly attacks it as a terrible deal made by “stupid” people. I suppose we couldn’t expect him to endorse any deal that Obama made, but his arguments against the deal (like most arguments against the deal) make no sense. When Iran shipped out its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Russia, Trump complained that Russia was getting the uranium instead of us:
But what kind of a deal is that? Even that. They’re shipping it to Russia, right? Why aren’t they shipping it to us? Why aren’t we getting it? They’re shipping it to Russia. I don’t like that.
Trump takes an important nonproliferation success that the deal with Iran made possible and sees it purely in terms of what material benefit the U.S. gets out of it. (One might ask why the U.S. would want or need Iran’s low-enriched uranium, but that’s almost beside the point.) The fact that the deal is so far doing exactly what it is supposed to do–making it practically impossible for Iran to acquire or even pursue a nuclear weapon–doesn’t interest him. Likewise, he has often repeated the false charge that the deal “gives” Iran $150 billion. At most, once their debts are settled with various other countries, the final figure for sanctions relief is likely to be around $50 billion. The more important point is that this is Iran’s own money that had been frozen under the sanctions. Any deal that Iran agreed to on the nuclear issue was bound to provide relief from sanctions, so there was no way that Iran wouldn’t be permitted to access these funds as part of an agreement. Once again, Trump is hung up on the dollar amount of the sanctions relief while ignoring the benefits of the deal.
I suspect Hadar is correct when he concludes that Trump’s foreign policy would probably not be all that different in substance from that of his rivals:
President Trump may prove to be more pragmatic than a President Rubio in handling world affairs, but his definition of core U.S. national interests would not be much different.
Depending on your view of current U.S. foreign policy, that is either reassuring or very dissatisfying. For a lot of Trump’s supporters, I assume it will be the latter.
There are some interesting details to be found in the Iowa exit polls, though many of them aren’t all that surprising. The CBS exit poll showed that Cruz won thanks to his large advantage with self-described conservatives, especially the “very conservative” voters that make up the bulk of his support everywhere.
Among all conservatives (85% of the voters), 31% backed Cruz to 23% for Trump and 22% for Rubio. Among “very conservative” voters (40% of all voters), the gap was much wider: Cruz 44% Trump 21% Rubio 15%. Where Trump did best was among moderate and liberal voters that are helping him establish large leads elsewhere, but in Iowa they made up just 15% of voters. Among moderates, Trump won easily, but that couldn’t offset Cruz’s advantage with conservatives. 34% of moderates backed Trump, 28% backed Rubio, and just 9% backed Cruz. In many later states, there will be significantly more moderates and fewer “very conservative” voters, and that points to some of the limitations for Cruz going forward. In 2012, moderate and liberals made up 47% of the Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire and 32% in South Carolina, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see Trump’s lead in these states remain quite large.
Rubio showed that he could get some “very” and “somewhat” conservative voters and a good number of moderates as well. “Somewhat” conservative voters made up 45% of the voters, and Rubio led with this group 29% to Trump’s 24% and Cruz’s 19%. We have seen in the past that this tends to be Rubio’s best ideological group, and so it was again. He led among those that said economy/jobs was the most important issue for the country (30% to Trump’s 24%), but trailed Cruz among those that said terrorism and government spending. For those that considered immigration the most important issue, Trump dominated with 44% and Rubio did poorly with 10%, but these voters made up just 11% of the total. Voters that prized a candidate’s ability to win the general election (21% of all voters) went for Rubio in a big way (44%), and that more than anything seems to account for his late surge. Rubio clearly won the very late-deciders with 30% of the people that decided in the last few days. Trump and Cruz were tied among those that had decided before that at 30%.
Cruz didn’t score well on electability. Only 22% of voters that considered that the most important quality backed Cruz. Where Cruz won by a mile was among those that wanted a candidate to share their values (38%), and these voters account for 42% of the total. That was fueled in large part by the huge turnout of evangelicals (64%), of whom 34% backed Cruz. Cruz was unsurprisingly weakest of the top three with non-evangelicals (18%), but since they were just over a third of voters that didn’t trip him up as much it likely will in later states.
Cruz did very well in a caucus state that was very well-suited to a candidate with his background and profile, but it isn’t likely to travel very well in places that don’t have a lot of evangelicals and “very conservative” voters. Very much like Huckabee in 2008, I suspect Cruz is going to have difficulty with non-evangelicals and non-Southerners, and that doesn’t bode well for his chances later in the primary season.