A lot of mention has been made of late as to who is benefitting the most from their debate performances, and who is damaged irreparably. Amidst the entertainment of the fiasco that has been the debate cycle, in both parties, there are unseen winners and losers.
The Loser: US Foreign Policy
Despite the increasingly dire threats facing the United States abroad, a growing refugee crisis and the backlash from the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, foreign policy largely sits on the backburner. Yes, the rhetoric surrounding taking the fight has been intense and widespread amongst most of the candidates. However, this is all that presently exists, and the American voter seems to be far more interested in the smoothest talker, and not the most qualified Commander in Chief.
As each day of the campaign drags on, likely primary voters appear to draw their motives from public issue statements, rather than any meaningful record of accomplishments. The polls are reflecting this. The candidates gaining both the most traction and media attention have very little, if any, foreign policy prowess on which they can draw to justify becoming the next Commander in Chief of the armed forces during this incredibly crucial time.
Republicans Donald Trump and Ben Carson, the two undeniable leaders in almost every recent poll, have nearly zero experience in any political field. Trump touts his negotiating experience as a point of pride for his foreign policy credentials. His outlandish, macho talking points have allowed him to soar in the polls despite lacking versed stances on any events in which a foreign entity, like ISIS, would have no interest or reason to negotiate. Then, of course, there is Carson, who has publicly admitted he is actively studying foreign policy on the campaign trail and has struggled to fend off reports that members inside his campaign “coach” him on foreign policy basics.
After the steep polling drop-off from the two distinct frontrunners, we have the class of three young senators: Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY). These senators have gained a lot of influence within the party, especially within the younger demographic the GOP desperately needs to reach. But, what does it mean for foreign policy?
Senator Rubio has laid out a strong, clear plan for strengthening the military and re-establishing American influence abroad. However, his attendance record in the Senate has been increasingly, and perhaps justifiably, called into question. Could President Rubio adequately handle international relations as president when he couldn’t dedicate time to hash out these issues as a Senator? There’s also the fact that Rubio attacked Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for “knowing nothing about enhanced interrogation.” Senator McCain was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam and lost most of the function in his arms due to the torture he endured there.
Senator Cruz largely joins Rubio in advocating for a strong national defense. Cruz’s vision, if implemented, would be a large benefit to the United States’ standing in the world. However, he has stated he would use overwhelming force to achieve American objectives, but not dedicate resources to “nation build” in the aftermath. This threatens to cause even more instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world and reflects the issue with inexperienced leadership.
There is always the interesting case of discussing foreign policy with the Paul family. Senator Paul, as well as his father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, blames American involvement in foreign affairs for many of the world’s problems. Paul’s non-interventionist vision also threatens to harm American integrity abroad and threatens our relationship with Israel by sacrificing the ability for the United States to influence global decisions.
No discussion of US foreign policy would be complete, however, without the mention of the name Bush. President George W’s little brother, former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, is trying to take over in a world that has largely rejected the Bush doctrine of foreign policy. This has also been harmed by Jeb’s unwillingness to reject his brother’s shortcomings and his fumbling many questions on the subject.
The rising tide of candidates, who have very poor foreign policy credentials, has only been compounded by the debate process marginalizing or eliminating the best candidates this cycle has to offer in terms of foreign policy. And, no, despite being Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (D-NY) does not fall into this group. Her lack of notable accomplishments in that role and the fact that foreign relations failed to improve during her time there keeps her out of that upper echelon.
Conversely, despite his vast experience, former Governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore, never had a shot in this race. What chances he had were eliminated by being excluded from all but one of the debate thus far. However, Gilmore logged years of service in the Army in West Germany in the 1970s, and was a former counterintelligence agent. He also has run or founded various councils within the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to security policy. His governorship of Virginia also coincided with the attacks of 9/11, which hit the Pentagon, in Arlington, VA. Unfortunately, this process blocks voters from access to his knowledge and experience.
Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) also has military experience in the Air Force and was the longest-serving governor in Texas history. He created millions of jobs in a huge economy, and has experience dealing with external competition. He’s also had experience dealing with the immigration crisis at the Texas border, which he deployed the Texas National Guard to combat. His campaign had huge support within the armed service community, but, after being relegated to the lower tier debate, he never caught momentum.
Another Senator who receives fairly little mention in this process is Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He also served in the Air Force and logged over 20 years of military service. He now serves on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate and has been endorsed by the aforementioned Senator McCain. Graham, due to low coverage and polling, has never made the top tier debates and was excluded altogether from the most recent one.
Finally, perhaps the most qualified Commander in Chief of all the candidates does not come from the Republican pool at all. Former Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) was a decorated Viet Nam War veteran, including two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy under the Reagan administration. Webb has further articulated clear knowledge of foreign policy and had a strong record of accomplishments during his term in the Senate. However, he received paltry speaking time in the only Democratic debate before he dropped out.
Winner: Vladimir Putin
The way this process has, thus far, marginalized legitimate foreign policy perspectives has paved the way for Vladimir Putin’s full ascension into the position of most powerful man in the world.
Putin has helped re-establish Russia as a dominant world force and has been ardent in his fighting of ISIS and radical Islamic forces in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s reluctance to take an active role has allowed Putin to maximize his influence.
The United States has helped embolden Russian leaders by pushing NATO right up to the Russian borders during the Bill Clinton administration. There is nothing wrong with NATO expansion, and given the time, it was a useful tool to deter future Russian aggression into former Soviet bloc states. It was used again by President Bush (43) to add the Baltic states to the alliance.
However, during these administrations, America displayed an active foreign policy, and projected strength. Therefore, these NATO expansions can be seen as strategic moves to maintain global influence. On the other hand, if America projects weakness, and retreats in influence, an advocacy for NATO expansion can be seen as nothing other than a symbolic move and unnecessarily antagonistic towards Russia.
Putin has seen this American weakness in policies like Hillary’s “reset” during her time as Secretary of State, where she initiated a unilateral easing of tensions and relaxing of US policy towards Russia, in hopes of making deals with then-President Dmitri Medvedev. It only projected weakness and galvanized Russian ambitions.
Now, Putin assumes a vast amount of influence on the world stage and the only credible threat to that unilateral influence would be a strong American leader. Symbolic moves like the expansion of NATO without any strategic objectives in mind, only projects weakness, and also gives Putin a rationalization for more rash actions that he knows the US would not be willing to back up.
Despite various assertions, Vladimir Putin is not an unreasonable or evil man. He has been both inspired and encouraged by reckless assertions on the part of US leaders and by their lack of strength when it comes to pressing international issues. He is an international actor responding to changing international conditions in order to increase his influence and leverage globally.
This makes him an undeniable threat to American influence abroad, and to America itself. We need a strong national leader to take on Putin’s advances head-on.
The dearth of credible Commanders in Chief in our presidential race and the rhetoric that has been spewed during this cycle will score as a victory for Putin who will continue to increase Russian influence while he takes on ISIS and threatens territorial expansion. He will receive no backlash from a United States that seems content to elect a leader who cannot adequately challenge his advances or be respected in an international context.