By Doug Bandow for Forbes
The Republican presidential race is heating up as 17 candidates seek attention and votes. But the GOP’s highly touted “adult” debate in Cleveland offered little on foreign policy.
The irrepressible Donald Trump may have made the most interesting comments elsewhere on the topic, challenging Washington’s defense of its rich allies in Asia and Europe. That subject didn’t come up in the debate, unfortunately.
Generally praised was the performance of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Alas, on foreign policy he sounds little different from anyone else, believing intervention and war to be the first resort for most any international problem.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is more bellicose and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is less respectful of civil liberties. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee more clearly take the “kill a foreigner for Jesus” position, mixing religious fervor with a foreign policy founded on war.
But Rubio seems distinctive in his willingness to sacrifice American lives, wealth, and prosperity and wreak death and destruction around the globe for most any reason. If you don’t think the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, and transnational fight against the Islamic State were enough over the last decade, Marco claims to be your man.
Rubio, like Christie and Jeb Bush, has delivered a signature talk on foreign policy. And, like them, he offered the usual neocon clichés, praising American greatness, promising “leadership” based on confrontation and conflict, and acting as if an angry glance from the U.S. president could bring the globe into line with Washington’s desires.
Rubio shares with Christie the delusion that the world has grown more dangerous. Warned Rubio: “Since the end of the Cold War, the threats facing America have changed, but the need for American Strength has not. It has only grown more pressing as the world has grown more interconnected.”
Actually, an oversize military has become much less necessary. The end of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact and demise of Maoist China obviously are far more important than the rise of the Islamic State. Rubio claimed that “Turmoil across the world can impact American families almost as much as turmoil across town.” Only if the U.S. allows it. Much of the globe always has been in conflict. During most of America’s history Washington simply avoided involvement in such tragedies.
That America today has broader interests does not mean that the interests are important, let alone vital. Rubio worries about rising prices from foreign instability. Far more consequential is the expense of military intervention, human and financial. How much are U.S. lives worth? Moreover, prices are more likely to rise, a concern of his, when Washington attacks nations, expands conflict, and spreads instability, as it has been doing in the Middle East.
Rubio was right when he declared: “Today, as never before, foreign policy is domestic policy.” But he missed the most obvious impact. It is difficult to maintain a democratic republic with a limited government committed to individual liberty while pursuing an imperial foreign policy. There are wars to fight, interventions to manage, dictatorships to support, money to waste, secrets to keep, trade to sanction, economies to disrupt, and much more. Americans’ freedom ends up as an afterthought.
Rubio cited the importance of exhibiting “moral clarity regarding America’s core values.” Washington has “superior aims,” of course, and no criticism of the U.S. is allowed. Rubio complained that President Obama “demonstrated a disregard for our moral purpose” and, horrors!, admitted American “arrogance.” Argued Rubio, “This deterioration of our physical and ideological strength has led to a world far more dangerous than when President Obama entered office.” If only Washington had been more arrogant and less honest, it would have deterred ISIL and Russia!
In Rubio’s view America has lost its “ideological strength,” which apparently is some imagined standard unsullied by human imperfection. Alas, “the ideals that have long formed the backbone of American foreign policy—a passionate defense of human rights, the strong support of democratic principles, and the protection of the sovereignty of our allies—have been replaced by, at best, caution, and at worse, outright willingness to betray those values for the expediency of negotiations with repressive regimes.” That actually sounds like Washington’s persistent support for the (dictatorial) allies that Rubio cherishes, including Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, and the Central Asian nations.
He denied advocating that Washington be the “world’s policeman,” at least, “I don’t think that’s necessarily the role that I would advocate.” Not necessarily, but certainly. That’s what his policy amounts to. He denounced those “who warn we should heed the words of John Quincy Adams not to go ‘abroad, in search of monsters to destroy’.” Even Rubio’s hawkish opponents don’t join him in advocating the deployment of Special Forces to Yemen, a country plunged into sectarian war by Washington’s ally, Saudi Arabia. Rubio believes in international engagement, except when it comes to a country like Cuba, which he wants to keep isolated by maintaining a 50-year-old embargo.
“We cannot bring about peace and stability on our own, but the world cannot do it without us,” Rubio added. “We” haven’t been doing a very good job even with the world—look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans, and Libya. It’s time to stop, yes, acting as the world’s policeman.
On invading Iraq Rubio wouldn’t admit that any error was made. “I still say it was not a mistake because the president was presented with intelligence that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” Never mind that the supposed evidence variously was manipulated, based on lies, and carefully scrubbed. (He has answered both yes and no when asked if he would have invaded knowing what he knows now.)
But Rubio shamelessly blamed Obama for the current Iraq imbroglio. The GOP Senator criticized support for Nouri al-Maliki, who became prime minister under George W. Bush. Rubio urged an American return to Iraq: “It’s not nation-building. We are assisting them in building their nation.” That fine distinction might earn a good grade in law school, but won’t fool the American people. Anyway, how well did such nation-building work after eight years in Iraq? After 13 years in Afghanistan? After decades in Bosnia and Kosovo?
Rubio also backed the Obama administration’s Libya misadventure. With no hint of irony he complained that “Anytime there’s a vacuum created anywhere in the Middle East it becomes a magnet for these sorts of terrorist groups.” Like what happened after ousting the Iraqi and Libyan governments? Naturally, since terrorists predictably showed up in Iraq it “might require some element of U.S. ground power in order to finish the job,” he warned.
To Rubio the U.S. is indispensable and “the free nations of the world still look to America to champion our shared ideals.” Of course they do, since Washington insists on doing their work for them. Seven decades after the conclusion of World War II these allies verbally “champion our shared ideals” while continuing to offload the cost and burden onto America.
Nevertheless, the U.S. must “reinforce our alliances,” he insisted. In particular, America “must commit to the military reinforcement of Eastern Europe.” Never mind that the Europeans have more money and people than America. And that the Eastern Europeans continue to underfund their militaries; only two devote even two percent of GDP to defense.
Washington must stop “planned force drawdowns” and ensure “a more permanent forward defense,” meaning of U.S. forces. The Europeans have made clear that they won’t do so. Washington should send weapons to Ukraine and impose additional sanctions, even though there is little support in Europe to follow suit and Moscow, which cares far more about Ukraine, will always spend and risk more. Ukraine would suffer the most if the conflict intensified. Oddly, he also argued that “our goal should never be to needlessly antagonize Russia.”
Worse is Rubio’s demand to “enlarge NATO.” The alliance “remains central to our security,” and Montenegro must be added. Precisely how would that make America safer? Would the Montenegrin army drive the Russians out of the Donbass and the Montenegrin navy stop the Chinese from grabbing the Senkaku Islands? Or, more likely, would the U.S. be stuck paying to upgrade the Montenegrin military while promising to defend Montenegro from whatever threats might emerge?
Moreover, said Rubio, the U.S. must “reaffirm that the open door policy is still intact and applies to any NATO aspirant, including Ukraine if it so chooses.” But the choice should be America’s, since the burden of defending any new member, including Ukraine, would fall on Washington. (Or is Rubio looking to Montenegro to fill that role?) Kiev, as well as Tbilisi, would be a security black hole, stuck in conflict with limited military potential. America might face an immediate call to fulfill NATO’s Article 5 security commitment—against a nuclear-armed power. If Rubio wants to start World War III, which America and the Soviet Union mercifully avoided during the Cold War, he should tell us now.
Rubio complained that “Most threatening of all, we’ve seen Iran expand its influence throughout the Middle East.” Actually, Iran is a wreck and poses little danger to the U.S., which someone as intelligent as Rubio must recognize. Moreover, the most important impetus for Tehran’s increased clout was Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which Rubio endorsed. Iran’s supposed influence elsewhere, in fractured Syria, divided Lebanon, and war-torn Yemen, hardly counts compared to Saudi Arabia’s military spending, which puts that totalitarian Islamic state at world number three, ahead of Russia. Moreover, Rubio criticized Obama’s attempt to prevent a nuclear Iran—naturally without suggesting any alternative, let alone a realistic one.
Rubio attempted to add a humanitarian gloss to his disastrous proposals: “Oppressed peoples still turn their eyes toward our shores, wondering if we can hear their cries, wondering if we notice their afflictions.” He also argued that “we have a responsibility to support democracy. And if a nation expresses a desire to become a democratic nation, particularly one that we invaded, I do believe that we have a responsibility to help them move in that direction.” Does his heart-warming concern apply to Egypt and Bahrain, oppressive U.S. allies? To the Central Asian states, which have provided Washington with bases? And to the totalitarian monarchy in Saudi Arabia, in which not one church, synagogue, or temple operates?
He complained about “Syrians crushed that America failed to prevent their country to descending into chaos” and “Afghans worried that America will leave them like we left Iraq.” Does he believe that the U.S. has an obligation to intervene in every civil war, and for its duration? What of the tragic conflicts in Congo, Liberia, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, and Burma? How about protecting Kurds from NATO ally Turkey? And why does he only want the U.S. to “speak out against modern-day gulags” in North Korea, instead of liberate that nation? What if North Koreans are “crushed and worried” about Washington’s failure to act? Does he have any standard for going to war?
While he waxed eloquent about the need to sacrifice for worthy purposes, he never did so himself. Despite failing to serve in the military, Rubio is surprisingly generous with the lives of Americans who do. Of course, he said he is honored to work with those in uniform—while planning to send them into danger for causes which apparently make him feel good. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Yet Rubio also would turn the military into an agent of corporate America through his plan for “the protection of the American economy in a globalized world.” He declared: “I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace or outer space.” Any violations? He would treat as a casus belli “the economic disruptions caused when one country invades another, as well as the chaos caused by disruptions in choke points such as the South China Sea or the Strait of Hormuz.” Might it not make sense to expect those directly affected to take the lead? Few foreign crises threaten grievous harm to the world’s largest economy. How many lives is he prepared to trade to sustain corporate jobs and profits?
Of course, with this agenda there must be more military spending: “the world is safest when America is at its strongest,” he intoned. But America already is stronger than every other nation today. If 40 percent of the world’s military spending isn’t enough, how much is? Two-thirds? Three-quarters? If it’s not enough to have more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined, how many are necessary?
America’s first responsibility is the safety of the U.S., not the gaggle of nations which would prefer not to have to protect themselves. Thus, Washington should avoid unnecessary wars, not join every conflict. War is sometimes necessary, but very seldom, especially for a superpower which is so much stronger than any potential adversary. To be secure Washington must not only be powerful. It must exhibit good judgment and appropriate humility before exercising its power—as well as consider the likely consequences of doing so.
Naturally Rubio blamed the president for “stripping parts from the engine of American Strength. He enacted hundreds of billions of defense cuts.” Obama “enacted”? As a senator surely Rubio knows that Congress enacts. In fact, military outlays continued rising through 2012, and will remain at or above the real levels of 2007, not known as a time of great military weakness. Rubio also complained about the size of the military, without considering its increased effectiveness. A ship today is more powerful than one 50, 100, or 150 years ago.
Finally, Rubio advocated more foreign aid, which, he claimed, “is a very cost-effective way not only to export our values and our example, but to advance our security and economic interests.” Yet trillions of dollars in economic assistance has been wasted, having virtually no measurable impact on growth; too often such foreign transfers have discouraged reform by enriching entrenched regimes. Even humanitarian aid often has proved to be counterproductive, while political and security assistance often turned into “walking around” money for the most corrupt and authoritarian regimes. Values may be exported, but not necessarily ones we should embrace.
Most of the other candidates sound similar to Rubio. Bush studiously avoided specifics in his first official address in February but revealed his inner-hawk in a talk at the Reagan presidential library yesterday. Other contenders have yet to offer much beyond clichés. A sad global paranoia afflicts the political Right. Listen to the GOP contenders and you’d think the U.S. was a feeble Third World state, adrift in a world of superpowers preparing to devour America from sea to shining sea.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin will use Crimea as a starting point for a Hitleresque Blitzkrieg across Europe. China will swallow East Asia, buy up Africa and South America, and then move on the U.S. Iran will nuke nuclear-armed Israel, conquer the Persian Gulf, and destroy America with an electromagnetic pulse. The Islamic State will establish a caliphate stretching from Libya to Saudi Arabia and use Mexico to stage attacks on America. The U.S. is involved in World War III or IV, even if most Americans don’t realize it.
Republican group-think won’t make America more secure. The Republican Party needs to rediscover its more truly conservative heritage and engage in a real debate over foreign and military policy.