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GOP Hawks Won’t Benefit from a Foreign Policy Election

Republican hawkish candidates shouldn't want 2016 to be a foreign policy election.

Kori Schake doubts Republican candidates will be able to turn foreign policy issues to their advantage in the election:

On current form, Republican presidential candidates look to be overstating foreign policy and understating how critical voters are likely to be of activist foreign policy as an electoral draw for 2016.

I have made some of the same points before, so I’ll just add a few more comments. Schake notes that hawkish candidates have taken aim at the nuclear talks with Iran and normalization with Cuba, but both of these initiatives currently enjoy broad majority support. Taking hard-line positions on Iran and Cuba might not be so important if those positions didn’t reflect a general aversion to diplomatic engagement and a preference for coercive measures, but they do. Hawks might be able to get a hearing from skeptical voters when they object to this or that aspect of a specific deal, but their reflexive hostility to diplomatic engagement itself is bound to strike most voters as unreasonable and dangerous. A hawkish candidate might be able to persuade some voters that he would do a better job at extracting additional concessions from a foreign government, but when it is obvious that he has no interest in even talking to the other government he is sure to alienate far more people than he wins over.

The hawkish candidates are also sharply at odds with the public regarding Syria. Most of these candidates have criticized Obama’s Syria policy for being insufficiently activist and aggressive. They fault him for not following through on his “red line” statement with military action, but that proposed intervention was so overwhelmingly unpopular that it was called off. The hawks also complain that the U.S. didn’t send enough support to the Syrian opposition, but most Americans don’t want the U.S. supporting the opposition in the civil war, and a plurality thinks the U.S. should have avoided any involvement in the conflict. Hawkish arguments that the U.S. needed to be more deeply involved even earlier won’t just fall on deaf ears, but will drive away voters that the candidate might otherwise be able to reach. The problem for hawkish candidates here isn’t just that their preferred policy in Syria is very unpopular, but that their desire to get the U.S. deeper into a brutal foreign civil war marks them as such knee-jerk interventionists that they couldn’t be trusted to keep the U.S. out of similar conflicts elsewhere. Like their aversion to diplomacy, the hawkish candidates’ instinct to meddle and take sides in foreign conflicts demonstrates their poor judgment and overly ideological approach to these issues.

One thing Schake didn’t discuss in her article was foreign policy experience, or the lack thereof. If a candidate needs “to win the public’s trust as a credible, potential commander in chief,” a lack of foreign policy experience is often one of the biggest hurdles that a candidate needs to overcome to do that. The Republican field is notable for being generally very hawkish and full of people with little or no foreign policy experience. If they weren’t such hard-liners, and if most of them weren’t insistent on emphasizing their hawkishness in their campaign, that might not matter very much. However, because most of them are taking hard-line positions and because they are often going out of their way to draw attention to those positions, the lack of experience becomes harder to ignore. A lack of foreign policy experience won’t necessarily sink a candidate (and sometimes candidates with none at all have gone on to win the general election), but if he can’t reassure voters that he has a command of the issues and has good judgment on those issues it is going to be counted against him. When a lack of experience is paired with the other problems discussed above, we see that Republican hawkish candidates shouldn’t want 2016 to be a foreign policy election after all. That they do want the election to focus on foreign policy tells us that they remain unaware of how great a political liability their hawkishness continues to be.



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