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The GOP’s Foreign Policy Swagger Problem

Chris Christie unsurprisingly knows nothing about foreign policy:

It was not, according to several of those in attendance, a tough or unexpected inquiry. But Mr. Christie, usually known for his oratorical sure-footedness, offered an uncharacteristically wobbly reply, displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, would know better than to mess with him.

According to an audio recording of the event, he said Mr. Putin had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. “I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment,” Mr. Christie said. “Let’s leave it at that.”

One attendee described Mr. Christie’s answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance [bold mine-DL]. Another called it “uncomfortable to watch.”

The striking thing in this story is that Christie’s lack of knowledge of these issues isn’t considered automatically disqualifying. We have seen this too many times in our presidential politics: a governor aims to run for higher office, but hasn’t a clue about foreign policy, and so we are treated to a series of quotes from various partisans that this person “has a lot of work to do” but shouldn’t be dismissed on account of ignorance. Why not say instead that the politician isn’t remotely qualified for the higher office and leave it at that? That would certainly apply to Christie, and it would apply to more than a few of his possible 2016 competitors.

As we are reminded in the article, Christie doesn’t make sense when he talks about specific issues. For instance, here he comments on the infamous “red line” in Syria:

Mr. Christie said he would have never drawn a “red line,” as Mr. Obama did with President Bashar al-Assad, but, “if you do, you better finish the job.”

This is a perfect example of foreign policy driven by bluster and a mindless need to appear “tough” rather than serious thinking. Christie is just trying to have things both ways here, and the result is nonsense. It’s potentially interesting that Christie says he wouldn’t have drawn a “red line” in Syria, but he immediately renders this meaningless this by saying that the “red line” that shouldn’t have been drawn should have been enforced anyway. If Christie thinks Obama was wrong to draw the “red line,” he has to acknowledge that it was better not to follow through on a threat that should never have been made. If he thinks that the U.S. needs to “finish the job,” he must think that the U.S. should have threatened Syria with serious consequences for taking actions that the U.S. opposed. Instead of choosing a position and paying the price either way, Christie wants credit for favoring an attack on Syria while simultaneously expecting credit for avoiding the trap that Obama set for himself.

The bigger problem for the GOP is that most of its would-be presidential candidates are just as bad as Christie when it comes to being “heavy on swagger and light on substance.” Republican politicians assume that they can get away with this because most of their party’s foreign policy professionals and pundits are only too happy to make excuses for them or cut them too much slack because they happen to have the right “instincts.” These politicians don’t put much effort into educating themselves on these issues, and so they have to resort to swagger and demagogic rhetoric to demonstrate “toughness” because they would otherwise have nothing to say. Since there is no degree of ignorance about foreign policy that won’t be tolerated for hawkish candidates (see Romney, Mitt), Republican hawkish politicians have no incentive to learn more than the standard talking points and have nothing to fear from being “light on substance.” Indeed, some “experts” and pundits probably prefer their would-be candidates to be clueless so that they can mold and shape them as they see fit, and any candidates that have bothered to give much thought to these issues are likely to see that many of the people that claim to speak for the party on foreign policy are likewise “heavy on swagger and light on substance.” Christie doesn’t know much about foreign policy, but unfortunately he is all too representative of his party’s elites in that regard.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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