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A 2016 Foreign Policy Report Card

Which candidates are most likely to be guided by realism and restraint?

Presidents have more latitude in foreign affairs than in domestic policy, and the trend over the past two administrations has been for presidents to be more hawkish than their campaign pledges led voters to expect. George W. Bush promised a “humble foreign policy.” Instead, he gave us the Iraq War. Barack Obama was elected in part to end Bush’s wars. But he too pursued regime change, with Pyrrhic success in Libya and abortively in Syria.

These examples are alarming precedents for the next administration. The Democrats and Republicans vying for their parties’ nominations have staked out a range of positions on the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, as well as on the nuclear deal with Iran and relations with Russia in light of Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine. The different magnitudes of U.S. military spending the contenders propose also suggest something about how interventionist each will prove to be. Campaign statements are not, however, a sure guide to what anyone will do in office.

TAC has assessed the the five Republicans and two Democrats who remain in the contest and graded their policies on these issues. We award good grades for restraint and bad grades for policies suggestive of interventionism. We have considered only a few telltale foreign-policy issues, and while we believe these accurately reflect the overall character of these contenders, they are an admittedly incomplete and imperfect measure. Nevertheless, they are informative.

This report card is not a voter guide: it is a summary of these leading figures’ views on key questions of war and peace. Our purpose is to inform the widest possible readership, in a concise manner, about the state of an ongoing public debate—one that will have consequences for every American in the years after Obama leaves office.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton has a record of supporting unilateral military interventions, particularly for humanitarian reasons. She seems more likely to escalate the situation in Syria than her former boss Obama, and the role she played in destabilizing Libya is well known. Clinton provides only vague answers on military spending, making room for a more hawkish stance in the future.

  • Military Spending: Clinton claims she will create a high-level commission to examine defense spending, but declines to provide details about what would actually be cut. She implies that she would often defer to the Pentagon: “I think we are overdue for a very thorough debate in our country about what we need, and how we are going to pay for it. Very often, leadership of the Defense Department wants to eliminate certain spending, or wants to change it, and they’re stopped by the Congress.” Grade: C
  • Russia: Clinton has defended the merits of a “reset” when she was secretary of state, but has also likened Russia’s seizing of Crimea to what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s. She favors sending lethal aid to Ukraine. Clinton has been a supporter of bringing more countries into NATO as senator and secretary of state, including advocating for membership for Ukraine and Georgia when she was still in the Senate. All are policies likely to provoke Russia, not improve relations. Grade: C
  • Iraq War: Clinton originally supported the war. Now she calls her decision a “mistake.” Grade: C
  • Libya: Clinton has defended pushing for a war of choice in Libya: “We had a murderous dictator, Gadhafi, who had American blood on his hands … threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people.” The intervention created a power vacuum, and today many parts of the country are overrun by ISIS. Grade: F
  • Syria: Clinton has endorsed both a safe zone and a “no-fly zone” in Syria. While she has said that this would be done in coordination with the Russians, it’s unclear how such a policy would work in practice. Grade: F
  • Iran: Clinton supported the deal as “part of a larger strategy toward Iran” that contains Tehran’s power as sanctions are lifted. “Diplomacy is not the pursuit of perfection—it is the balancing of risk.” Grade: A
  • Final Grade: D

Bernie Sanders

Sanders is the least hawkish of all the candidates. He supports diplomacy and restraint abroad, and has an established record of voting against military interventions in the Middle East. He made a rare deviation from this anti-interventionist stance on Libya.

  • Military Spending: “Given its staggering human and monetary costs, war should be a last resort. Exhaust all other options first, but keep a robust military at the ready.” Grade: B
  • Russia: Sanders endorses current administration policy of imposing sanctions to penalize Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, but does not appear to support sending lethal aid. He has opposed NATO expansion (at least going back to the second round that expanded the alliance into the Baltics and eastern Europe). Grade: B
  • Iraq War: He opposed the Iraq War in 2003, and still opposes it now. Grade: A
  • Libya: Sanders voted for a Senate resolution calling for the end of the Gaddafi regime and requesting U.N. intervention. Grade: D
  • Syria: Sanders believes that the U.S. should not take the lead in the fight against ISIS. Ideally, he would prefer if Middle Eastern nations could work to fight Islamic extremism. “We have to understand that the Muslim nations in the region—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan—all of these nations, they’re going to have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground. They are going to have to take on ISIS. This is a war for the soul of Islam.” Grade: B
  • Iran: Sanders firmly supported the Iran Deal: “… the test of a great nation is not how many wars we can engage in, but how we can use our strength and our capabilities to resolve international conflicts in a peaceful way.” Grade: A
  • Final Grade: B

Donald Trump

When it comes to foreign interventions, Trump can’t seem to make up his mind. He supported regime change in Libya in 2011, but wants to withdraw completely from Syria. He would review the Iran deal and has made comments that could indicate he supports a smaller defense budget, but offers no concrete stance.

  • Military Spending: Trump has no detailed plan for the defense budget, and makes only vague comments about it: “I’m gonna build a military that’s gonna be much stronger than it is right now. It’s gonna be so strong, nobody’s gonna mess with us. But you know what? We can do it for a lot less.” Grade: C
  • Russia: Trump wants increased diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia. He is interested in working with Russia in Syria and has repeatedly said that he would get along very well with Putin. He does not care if Ukraine joins NATO or not (“Whether it goes in or doesn’t go in, I wouldn’t care. If it goes in, great. If it doesn’t go in, great.”) On Ukraine, he tends not to criticize Russia and does not offer help from the U.S., but would rather Europe get involved in our stead. “I don’t like what’s happening with Ukraine. But that’s really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us. And they should be leading some of this charge.” Grade: B
  • Iraq War: Although Trump likes to say that he firmly opposed the Iraq War back in 2002, there are no public records of him doing so. Now he calls the Iraq War a huge mistake. Grade: C
  • Libya: In 2011 Trump supported humanitarian intervention in Libya and the removal of Gaddafi, but now he says that it was a huge mistake. Grade: D
  • Syria: Trump believes that Russia’s military moves in Syria are targeting ISIS and that the U.S. shouldn’t interfere. “We always give weapons, we give billions of dollars in weapons and then they turn them against us. We have no control. So we don’t know the other people that we’re supposed to be backing.” Grade: B
  • Iran: Trump says he wouldn’t tear up the deal at this point, but he would “police” the deal to make sure Iran doesn’t break the agreement. Grade: B
  • Final Grade: C

Ted Cruz

Cruz has called the Iraq War and intervention in Libya a mistake, but wants to “carpet bomb” ISIS, arm the Kurdish forces, and establish a no-fly zone in Syria. He would call for a significant increase in defense outlays.

  • Military Spending: Cruz wants to dramatically increase military spending. He voted for an amendment to increase the defense budget to what some estimated was $697 billion. Grade: F 
  • Russia: Cruz supports arming Ukraine, and mistakenly believes that the U.S. is obligated by treaty to aid them. It’s unclear if he misunderstands what the Budapest memorandum required of the U.S. or just assumes that the U.S. has made some other security commitment to Ukraine: “We have a treaty obligation to stand with them.” Grade: F
  • Iraq War: Cruz has no record of support or opposition back in 2002, but now says: “Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq. At the time, the intelligence reports indicated that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that posed a significant national security threat to this country. … We now know in hindsight, those intelligence reports were false.” Grade: C
  • Libya: Cruz thinks that the 2011 intervention was a mistake: “Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet, he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism. … The terrorist attack that occurred in Benghazi was a direct result of that massive foreign policy blunder.” Grade: A
  • Syria: Cruz supports a no-fly zone, and wants to “carpet bomb” and “saturation bomb” ISIS in Syria. He would arm the Kurdish forces. Grade: F
  • Iran: Cruz wants to tear up the recent agreement: “If I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal. If there’s anyone up here who would be bound by this catastrophic deal with Iran, they’re giving up their core responsibility as commander in chief.” Grade: F
  • Final Grade: D

John Kasich

Kasich is a mixed bag in terms of hawkishness. He wants to work with the Iran Deal and criticized the nation building mission in Libya. But he has announced plans to increase the military budget and supports a no-fly zone in Syria.

  • Military Spending: Though Kasich says he wants to increase military spending by $102 billion (17%) between 2017 and 2025, this is far slower growth than the defense budgets suggested by Rubio and Cruz. This is consistent with the stance he took in Congress, when he was known as a “cheap hawk.” Grade: C
  • Russia: Asked about Putin’s aggression, Kasich said “it’s time we punched the Russians in the nose” because of their role in both Syria and Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Kasich is on record advocating for the U.S. arming Ukrainian forces. Grade: F
  • Iraq War: Kasich originally supported the war, but now says: “I would never have committed ourselves to Iraq.” Grade: C
  • Libya: Kasich opposed the state building mission in Libya: “Libya was a terrible mistake. Frankly, that’s something that people ought to be thinking about in regard to Hillary. You know, they talk about Benghazi, which is very legitimate, of course it is, but we should never have deposed Gaddafi. That was a terrible mistake. The guy was working with us and now we’ve created chaos in that country.” Grade: A
  • Syria: Kasich has called for the U.S. to provide “moral leadership,” including a no-fly zone and a coalition of ground troops in Syria. “You enter that no-fly zone, you enter at your own peril. No more red lines, no more looking the other way. If any hostile aircraft should enter that, there will be a great consequence to them.” Grade: F
  • Iran: Unlike most of his fellow Republicans, Kasich would not tear up the Iran Deal: “You’re going to rip it up and then what? Then what are you going to do when you rip it up? To just say that we’re going to walk away—we’ve got to remember that we do have allies and we want to call on them to work with us and a lot of them are signing up to this.” Grade: A
  • Final Grade: C

Marco Rubio

Rubio is an unabashed hawk. He scores poorly in every category, eschewing diplomacy supporting every military intervention. Unsurprisingly, Rubio also wants to increase defense spending.

  • Military Spending: In March 2015, Rubio introduced an amendment to increase defense outlays to what proponents estimated was $697 billion. The measure, which failed 32-68 in the Senate, was also supported by Ted Cruz. Grade: F
  • Russia: Rubio is all for arming Ukraine, and attacks the administration for not doing it. Rubio has also been a strong supporter of NATO expansion, including support for bringing Georgia into the alliance. As recently as last year, he expressed support for letting Ukraine join NATO if it wanted to. Grade: F
  • Iraq War: Rubio is unapologetic in his support for the war: “George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do. And again, he kept us safe, and I am forever grateful to what he did for this county.” Grade: F
  • Libya: Rubio strongly supported the intervention in Libya in 2011. “When an American president says the guy needs to go, you better make sure that it happens because your credibility and your stature in the world is on the line.” Grade: F
  • Syria: Rubio wants a no-fly zone and an expanded air assault mission. He says that it is “critical” that a Sunni force confront ISIS and is interested in approaching Jordan and Egypt for the multinational ground coalition he hopes to form. He says the U.S. must make it clear that Russia should not be involved in a coalition. Grade: F
  • Iran: Rubio has said repeatedly that he would rip up the Iran Deal on his first day in office. Grade: F
  • Final Grade: F

Ben Carson

Carson can be relied upon to embrace the hawkish line in almost every area. He plans to renege on the Iran Deal his first day in office and increase the military budget to 2012 levels. He has condemned the Iraq War, but with no official stance from back in 2002, he is merely following suit with the other candidates. Carson supports military intervention in the Middle East, partly to diminish Russia’s influence in the region and prevent Putin from gaining a foothold there.

  • Military Spending: Carson argues that “our armed forces are too small, too old, out-gunned and under-resourced.” He wants to permanently suspend sequestration and restore the defense budget to 2012 levels. Grade: F
  • Russia: Carson wants to work with Russia in Syria but afterwards push them out and marginalize their role in the Middle East. He would deter Russian aggression in the Baltic states by providing lethal assistance to Ukraine, maintain current sanctions, pressure their “energy-dependent” economy, and reinvigorate missile defense plans (particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic). Grade: D
  • Iraq War: Carson made no public statements in 2002 since he was not in the political realm at the time. On the campaign trail he has stated that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake, but has said he would still have supported regime change: “I would have gotten rid of the problem of Saddam Hussein some other way.” Grade: D
  • Libya: Carson wants a preventative strategy to keep ISIS from expanding into Libya. He leans heavily on his advisors and has repeatedly said he would consider renewing airstrikes in Libya if the military brass advised him to do so. Grade: F 
  • Syria: Carson wants to “formally declare war on the Islamic State; lead the formation of a military coalition of moderate Arab nations; isolate the Syrian and Iraqi portions of ISIS; urge U.S. allies to recruit and train Sunni Syrian men to establish a military force; and deploy America’s military resources to work with indigenous forces to establish a safe zone for refugees.” Grade: F
  • Iran: Carson plans to withdraw from the deal: “Of the Obama-Clinton administration’s many foreign policy mistakes, its nuclear agreement with Iran poses the most dangerous, long-term threat to the United States and the world. … As president, I will withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement on Day One.” Grade: F
  • Final Grade: F