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A 2016 Foreign Policy Report Card

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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61 Comments To "A 2016 Foreign Policy Report Card"

#1 Comment By Peedee On February 26, 2016 @ 7:06 am

Considering that Clinton ran her 2008 campaign -$35M into the red and ‘left the White House broke’, she should receivr an A for grifting Karzai $5B from US aid to Afghanistan, deposited directly into his Bank of Kabul in the interim during which Clinton made five trips shuttling courier bags back and forth to Kabul, before announcing her net wealth was $15,000,000, and an ‘anonymous donor’ paid off her bankrupt -$35M campaign debt. And she should graduate Summa cum Laude for pulling off this grift while a Federal Cabinet member, without a single person other than her soon-to-be-dead Special Envoy to Afghanistan saying a word. None dared to call it treason, I guess. You wouldn’t want to end up like Holbrooke, dead on a slab at GWU.

#2 Comment By Jay Lindberg On February 26, 2016 @ 10:30 am

The grading that bothered me the most was Clintons C grade for Ukraine and her involvement in overthrowing the legitimate elected government there. The other issue is how badly Bernie got Libya wrong when he clearly understood the situation in Iraq. What was he thinking and he had to know the atrocities committed by Qaddafi were lies.

FYI- leading up to the invasion in Iraq, I approached my Congressman about the invasion plan. I was told that everyone in Congress knew there were no weapons of Mass destruction there. THEY ALL KNEW. The weapons of Mass destruction BS was cover for a war of aggression. It was about looting rights and they all knew it.

#3 Comment By Jon On February 26, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

This is a highly conflict-based view of foreign policy (with the grading showing a strong preference for isolationism). It could be much improved by including other aspects of foreign policy – trade deals being one obvious addition. Sanders would score very poorly there; I don’t think he could approve any realistic trade deal, as evidenced by his consistent votes against.

People have suggested adding China and Israel for consideration, and I’d suggest Mexico also.

#4 Comment By Steve in Ohio On February 26, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

After Kasich’s remarks last night, it was apparent that he was the beneficiary of grade inflation. I would respectfully request a do over.

#5 Comment By cka2nd On February 26, 2016 @ 3:33 pm

Richard M says: “I think we should be clear that, while he has not put out a hard figure yet, Sanders has zeroed in on Scandinavian defense budgets (which spend about 1.3% of GDP) as admirable targets. That would entail, for the U.S., a cut on DoD budgets of something over 70% (assuming he could get it through Congress). A cut of that size would massive, unprecedented outside war-ending situations, and of deeply questionable prudence. This would certainly make major interventions abroad all but impossible, but it would also make U.S. security of the global sea lanes in much of the world impossible as well.”

The fact that we kept our military at war-making size following World War II and for the following 70 years was unprecedented in U.S. history, in which mass demobilizations was the norm, from the War of 1912 through World War I. To correct that historic error, an unprecedented peacetime demobilization is necessary and can be done prudently, with the air force, army and, perhaps, the marines taking the brunt of the cuts.

I have no doubt that our navy is way too large, but you make an interesting point about policing the world’s shipping lanes. It would be easy to dismiss this as part of the job of world policeman that we should give up, but someone does have to do it. My question is, should one nation take responsibility for securing the world’s sea lanes or would a regional and/or national approach make more sense?

Must the U.S. be responsible for the shipping lanes around South and Central America, or couldn’t some combination of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba and Mexico handle part or all of the job? Is the U.S. fleet needed to police the North Atlantic or Mediterranean? I imagine Egypt already patrols the Red Sea and India the Indian Ocean; if there are lanes that they miss, could other regional players be brought into the mix?

If there are parts of the South Pacific that are rife with pirates, should not the nations in the area – from the Philippines and Vietnam to Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand – be charged with suppressing them, with outside intervention being a last resort? And even then, shouldn’t China, Russia or Japan be tapped before the U.S.?

Honestly, Sub-Saharan Africa seems to me to be the one continent-sized area that lacks the local capacity to handle the job, South Africa and Nigeria excepted.

I do understand that regional politics means that Vietnam, for instance, might not to want to rely on China’s policing of sea lanes on which the former rely, not to mention Saudi Arabia and Iran, etc., etc., etc. And I fully admit that the questions above are based on snippets of news gathered over the years and some quick internet searches, so I am sure I am missing other important issues regarding the security of the world’s shipping, but I honestly wonder why the U.S. should do for the world today what Rome did for the Mediterranean two thousand years ago.

#6 Comment By Kyle McKenna On February 28, 2016 @ 4:23 am

Awesome, awesome to see that at least some conservatives have learned from America’s colossal blunders of the past few decades.

#7 Comment By Jacobus On February 28, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

From reading the comments, it is clear that many have confusion between the Republican platform and a truly conservative platform. The views it fosters through this assessment reflect true Republican credentials and not the Tea Party line built on nothing but destructive anger. Thank you

#8 Comment By Gene Christensen On February 28, 2016 @ 10:25 pm

I don’t believe this position warrants an A rating for Hillary.


#9 Comment By harley On February 29, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

I’m not sure what formula was used for the overall grades, but it seems like the likelihood of starting wars with Russia and / or North Korea deserves some extra attention, negative scores, etc…

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 3, 2016 @ 6:24 am

“Considering that Clinton ran her 2008 campaign -$35M into the red and ‘left the White House broke’, she should receivr an A for grifting Karzai $5B from US aid to Afghanistan, deposited directly into his Bank of Kabul . . .”

I am unclear how much of this is accurate. But the more I learn about the Sec. the more disappointed I am in democrats who have attempted to claim the high ground on multiple issues: foreign policy, campaign finance, Wall Street malfeasance, and yet more and more right before their very noses

— they are fawning over a candidate who exceeds even their expectations on every question.

#11 Comment By MarkR On April 9, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

Let’s not forget that Obama also caused over 2000 American fatalities, when he “surged” back into Afghanistan in 2008.