Republicans on Defense: Breathing Fire or Blowing Smoke? | William Hartung

William Hartung

It’s a given that to be a Republican candidate for president you have to bash President Obama as being weak on defense. But as evidenced in Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, while a few of the candidates depart from the party’s most heated foreign policy rhetoric, none of them have come up with a coherent alternative.


The frontrunner, Donald Trump, was, as usual, bombastic and fact-free. His main point on foreign policy seems to be that negotiating a real estate lease or running a reality TV show qualifies him to go toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is standard fare for Trump, underscored by his recent appearance at the much ballyhooed but sparsely attended rally against the Iran nuclear deal organized by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). On that occasion, Trump declared “we will have so much winning if I get elected, that you may get bored of winning.” Or, as he suggested in the debate, “We’ll have more of everything,” from savvy trade deals to increased military might. It’s foreign policy by force of personality – and a volatile, ill-informed personality at that.


Rand Paul made the most telling criticism of Trump in response to a question about whether the real estate developer turned entertainer had the temperament to be trusted with “his finger on the nuclear codes.” After Trump himself dodged the question in favor of an ad hominem attack on Paul, the Kentucky senator questioned whether someone with his “sophomoric quality” and “careless language” could indeed be trusted to negotiate with Iran, or have control of the aforementioned nuclear codes. Trump’s response? A backhanded jab at Rand Paul’s looks!


All that being said, Trump managed to get one thing right when he spoke about the disastrous consequences of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Rand Paul chimed in, noting that “The Iraq war backfired . . . We’re still paying the repercussions of a bad decision.”


Jeb Bush drew applause from the conservative crowd when he fired back that his brother had kept America safe. But Bush’s assertion is dead wrong with respect to Iraq. The Iraq war made America less safe and less prosperous. It opened the door to the rise ISIS, whose predecessor organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was formed in response to the U.S. intervention. And the war’s total cost – which we will be paying for years to come – could exceed $4 trillion, according to an analysis by Linda Bilmes of the Kennedy School. Trump and Paul deserve credit for bucking the prevailing GOP narrative about the “success” of the Iraq intervention.


The CNN debate revealed two camps on the issue of the nuclear deal with Iran – those who opposed the deal and promised to rip it up on day one of their presidency, and those who opposed it but acknowledged that it wouldn’t be so simple to walk it back given commitments to allies. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee win the prize for the most inflammatory rhetoric on the subject. Cruz called the Iran deal a “catastrophe” and identified the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as “the greatest security threat to the United States.” Huckabee went further, stating that it was “really about the survival of Western civilization.” Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich came out in the middle, opposing the deal but acknowledging the need to consult allies and noting, as Bush did, that “it’s not a strategy to tear up an agreement.” Rand Paul struck the most reasonable note, with his novel suggestion that we actually wait and see whether the deal is working: “Should we cut up the agreement immediately? That’s absurd. Wouldn’t you want to know if they complied?”


Paul’s position was a refreshing departure from GOP orthodoxy, which has come to treat the Iran deal as the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare – a partisan rallying point, with little or nothing to do with the details of the policy. And the results on the Iran deal may be the same as with Obamacare – lots of huffing and puffing but little real political traction. When Americans are given basic information about the Iran agreement, a majority support it. So screaming about the Iran deal may be a satisfying Republican talking point, but it is both bad policy and bad politics.


The biggest news to come out of the CNN debate was the performance of Carly Fiorina. Many pundits cited her as the winner of the debate, hands down, in part due to her alleged “policy chops.” And while Fiorina does deserve some credit for giving a few details of what she would spend the Pentagon budget on, her proposals don’t add up. She called for a military that includes 50 Army brigades, 36 Marine Corps battalions, and between 300 and 350 ships. What she failed to point out was that her numbers seemed to come straight from page one of a recent report by the Heritage Foundation. And as Kate Brannen has pointed out in an excellent piece in the Daily Beast, Fiorina’s wish list would cost an extra $500 billion or more over the next decade, with no proposal as to how to pay for it. There was also no indication of what missions Fiorina would expect these extra forces to actually carry out.


Far from offering fresh insights on complex national security issues, Fiorina offered a policy of tough talk devoid of any indication of how she would make the tough decisions necessary to craft a coherent and sustainable national security policy. Her style may be different, but in substance her approach isn’t that far from Donald Trump’s assertion that “we’ll have more of everything!”


It remains to be seen whether this hawkish posturing will play with independent voters, or even with those parts of the Republican base that care about fiscal responsibility and are wary of military intervention in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. But other than Rand Paul’s note of caution about getting involved in additional military interventions, there has not been much to distinguish the members of the Republican field when it comes to defense policy.


Even John Kasich, who helped kill the B-2 bomber when he was a member of the House Armed Services Committee and has the experience needed to take on chronic waste at the Pentagon, has been swept up in the politics of more. Kasich’s has proposed a dramatic increase in the size of the U.S. Navy beyond what is projected in the Navy’s current shipbuilding plan, a plan which is itself unaffordable relative to the resources likely to be available over the next three decades. The Ohio governor should reconsider this ill-conceived proposal. In fact, Kasich should distinguish himself by taking a stand against building a dozen new ballistic missile submarines at a cost of $7 to $8 billion per ship, or by announcing specific plans to hold contractors accountable for the cost overruns and outright fraud that too often occur in the process of developing new weapons systems. Then at least one of the Republican candidates might begin to craft a defense policy that involves more than talking tough and throwing more money at the Pentagon, regardless of what is actually needed to defend the country.

Republicans on Defense: Breathing Fire or Blowing Smoke? | William Hartung.