Can Trump or Cruz Expose Hillary Clinton on Foreign Policy?

Can Trump or Cruz Expose Hillary Clinton on Foreign Policy?
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Many analysts have posited that Hillary Clinton would have an advantage in a general election on issues relating to foreign policy and national security. But the extended primary fight she’s waging with Bernie Sanders has placed her in a difficult position -- wedged between a desire to enhance her electability in a general election by emphasizing differences with President Obama on foreign policy and a political need to gain the support of Democratic primary voters by embracing the Obama record.

That leaves Republican candidates with an opening, but one which neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz has taken. Trump’s pronouncements have been incoherent at best and dangerous at worst. Cruz has given speeches on national security that include thoughtful if vague proposals, but has also made statements that are ill-informed. Neither has directly exposed the quandary that Clinton finds herself in.

Unfortunately for Clinton, she owns the Obama foreign policy -- and the fact that the world has become a more unstable and insecure place since the president took office. In particular, the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino have added to voter anxiety on matters of national security and caused many Americans to view Obama’s policies in this arena in a negative light.

The foreign policy failures that Clinton supported are manifold: Her call for America’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, creating a vacuum that helped to fuel the rise of the Islamic State. Clinton’s belief that Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, was a “reformer” who could be charmed. Or her support for the U.S. intervention in Libya, which removed Qaddafi but left a failed state, regional instability, and four dead Americans in its wake. And finally, Clinton’s failed “reset” with Russia, which was a naïve attempt to draw closer to Vladimir Putin but has only resulted in multiple Russian efforts to thwart American interests around the globe.

Recently, Clinton has tried to appeal to Democratic primary voters by reminding them of her service as Obama’s Secretary of State and the work she did to advance his foreign policy agenda. But it hasn’t always been this way. Before her battle with Bernie Sanders heated up earlier this year, Clinton repeatedly drew distance from Obama’s foreign policy. She was a forceful advocate for more aggressive American intervention in Syria, calling for arming the rebels and creating a no-fly zone. Clinton has argued for a plan to “defeat” rather than merely to “contain” ISIS, as Obama at one point suggested the goal should be. And she has criticized the president for lacking a coherent foreign policy strategy, pointedly noting that “don’t do stupid stuff” -- a well-known articulation of the Obama approach – “is not an organizing principle.”

So is the challenge for Hillary Clinton. She’s stuck between a desire to embrace the past while also creating distance from it. The remaining Republican presidential contenders should be taking advantage of Clinton’s awkward pirouettes. Instead they have, thus far, been arguing with one another over who can articulate a less sane national security agenda.

Donald Trump has been a leading voice for incoherence and illiteracy in foreign policy. He has, on the one hand, described nuclear proliferation as “the biggest problem the world has.” But, on the other, Trump has suggested that America should pull back from its military commitment to long-term allies in Asia -- a move that would likely lead to the nuclearization of South Korea and Japan, while wreaking havoc on regional stability. He’s said at various points that NATO is both “a good thing to have” and “obsolete.” And he apparently believes that the best way to promote economic growth in America is to start trade wars with both China and Mexico.

Unfortunately, Ted Cruz hasn’t yet seized the opportunity to consistently expose the quandary that Clinton is in, or to consistently offer more than political generalities on national security issues. Some of his pronouncements have been ill-informed, like calls to “carpet-bomb” ISIS -- a statement that Cruz was later forced to clarify as either more targeted airstrikes or airstrikes like the ones carried out during the First Gulf War. Others have been incendiary, like his proposal for stepped-up patrolling and policing of Muslim neighborhoods in the United States. And then there’s the problem of inconsistency in Cruz’s record on military spending. On the one hand, he’s talked about increasing the number of warships, soldiers and planes. But he’s also supported a budget sponsored by Senator Rand Paul, which would have slowed defense spending, and opposed the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes defense spending.

While Trump’s utterances on foreign policy have disqualified him with many voters, Cruz still has the chance to use national security issues to his advantage. He is a talented communicator who is supported by a solid team of mostly credible foreign policy advisers. If he can present a specific foreign policy strategy, based on an evaluation of current threats and capabilities, Cruz will consolidate support amongst those who believe that President Obama has been a disaster on national security issues. Indeed, Cruz will give much-needed voice to those who believe that what’s needed in American foreign policy is a move toward clarity, resolve, and strength.

Foreign policy can and should be a liability for Hillary Clinton in a general election. But it will require a Republican to deploy that liability against her consistently and forcefully this Fall. Donald Trump has proven that he’s a flawed messenger on foreign policy whose own musings on the subject disqualify him in the minds of many voters. So the responsibility and opportunity will likely fall to Cruz. Whether he succeeds, or not, is entirely up to him.

Lanhee J. Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the public policy faculty at Stanford University. He was an adviser to Marco Rubio’s presidential bid and the policy director of the 2012 Romney-Ryan presidential campaign.

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