New York Times Editorial Board
To hear most of the Republican candidates tell it, all an American president has to do is talk tough, make demands, send more troops overseas, pour billions more dollars into the Pentagon and the world will fall in line. The notion they’re peddling boils down to this: President Obama is weak, I am strong and America will be great again when I am in the White House.
Take Donald Trump, who on Sunday told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the way to defeat the Islamic State (also called ISIS and ISIL) was to send American combat troops back into Iraq and take control of large sections of the country and its oil resources. Or Jeb Bush, who last Tuesday urged more robust military engagement in Iraq and Syria. He said he would involve Americans more deeply in the anti-ISIS fight alongside Iraqi troops, possibly increase the number of Americans there and establish a no-fly zone over Syria.
Mr. Bush and most of the other aspirants, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Carly Fiorina, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (but not Mr. Trump), would also repudiate the deal under which Iran has committed not to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.
Republicans have long employed the Democrats-are-weak trope. But it’s harder to make that case after 16 years of Democratic presidents who did not hesitate to intervene forcefully when they thought it necessary — Bill Clinton in Bosnia and in Yugoslavia in defense of Kosovo and Mr. Obama in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and with prolonged drone strikes along the Pakistan border.
But as many people now realize, leadership in today’s multipolar world depends not just on a large army and the threat of force but also on the president’s ability to present America’s democracy as a plausible alternative to repression and radicalism and to wield all the tools at his disposal, including diplomacy, to achieve the nation’s goals. President George W. Bush’s swaggering approach to leadership and his headstrong use of force, especially in his first term, led to the disaster that still imperils Iraq today.
So far, the Republican candidates have offered mostly vague, disjointed ideas, mostly on the Mideast and disconnected from a coherent strategy and even sometimes from reality. Mr. Bush, for instance, has moved from saying his brother’s war in Iraq was a bad idea to asserting that the war had value because it overthrew Saddam Hussein. This reinterpretation of history is not reassuring, nor is his blaming Mr. Obama for abandoning Iraq when it was his brother who negotiated the deal under which all American forces would withdraw by the end of 2011.
Mr. Bush’s speech did not begin to address the hard questions of how he could do a better job than Mr. Obama of persuading Iraqis to defend their country or encourage a political climate in which all of Iraq’s sectarian groups might work together. Nor does Mr. Trump inspire confidence as a possible international leader when he seems to go out of his way to insult America’s allies.
Voters deserve a serious debate on foreign policy and the role Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, had in shaping it as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state. But for that to happen the Republican candidates have to offer a more honest analysis and more thoughtful solutions to the challenges facing the nation, including relations with China, not just red meat to their conservative base.