Foreign policy is shaping up as a defining issue in the presidential campaign.
Republican candidates, with the exception of Rand Paul, are vying to take the most hawkish stance on combating Islamic State and, secondarily, countering Russian President Vladimir Putin.
They reflect a harder-line attitude among American voters in the wake of Islamic State’s abominations and Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine.
Yet the public still is interventionist-adverse, after more than 13 years of wars, causing most candidates to temper their rhetoric on the use of U.S. forces. This is playing out in the populous Republican nomination contest. It will affect Hillary Clinton, too
It’s not that national security is the most important issue for the public; that’s still the economy and jobs. And there will be a plethora of international issues to debate, including Iran, China, Putin and trade.
But how to stem the atrocities of Islamic state, which seems to be getting stronger, will be the dominant question.
The Republican mantra is that the growth of Islamic State, and other terrorist havens, as well as Putin’s aggressiveness, stem from the Obama administration’s weakness.
Rather than George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was President Barack Obama’s decision not to keep forces there in 2009 that created the Islamic State.
The other villain to Republican hawks is their nomination rival, Sen. Paul of Kentucky, who has blamed U.S. interventions for creating many of the problems in the Middle East. And he’s trying to stop some domestic antiterrorism surveillance programs.
Yet the only potential Republican candidate whose tough rhetoric is matched by policy prescriptions is South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who advocates deploying U.S. ground forces to fight Islamic State and being more forceful with Putin.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also would send 10,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria.
“Foreign policy will play a larger role, although there’s not support for large deployments on the scale of what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “There are advocates for interventions that are short or small or not costly.”
Thus, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush argues for a tougher approach to Iraq and Syria, and assails what he views as Obama’s weakness.
But when asked about a U.S.-led force now, he told The New York Times last week, “I don’t think that will work.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, staking out hawkish territory, vows to kill the terrorists but with more air power, not ground forces.
How will these Republicans react when, in a debate, Paul responds to their attacks by saying simply, “Would you like to reinvade Iraq?”
The political consultants will advise their candidates to duck.
All the Republican hopefuls, even Paul, call for big increases in the defense budget and an end to sequestration, which limits discretionary domestic and defense spending to curb deficits.
“There’s no way we can adequately fund the defense budget under the sequester,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told McClatchy on May 9.
Yet these Republicans favor big tax cuts, with little indication of offsetting cuts in entitlement spending.
The result would be bigger deficits, which are antithetical to a Republican article of faith:
Short-term budget shortfalls are dangerous.
Hillary Clinton, an instinctive interventionist, will run in primaries where many voters oppose foreign actions by the United States.
So far, congressional Republicans, with their repeated focus on the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya that killed four Americans, have allowed her to avoid the bigger question of the 2011 intervention to topple the Libyan dictator Moamar Gadhafi.
As secretary of state, she once thought this would be her signature success. The violence-torn country now looks more like a disaster.
When foreign policy plays a prominent role in presidential elections, the default position usually is for candidates to be hawkish (2008, after the Iraq debacle, was an exception).
It may be more normal this time, until it comes to specific actions.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.