Republican US Sen. John Cornyn ripped President Obama's foreign policy and urged lifting spending caps on defense. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP)
WASHINGTON — The US Senate’s No. 2 Republican wants to separate defense spending caps from domestic ones, while also moving to a foreign policy that rejects a “false dichotomy” between inserting American troops or doing nothing.
Senate Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Wednesday blasted President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and national security approach, saying Obama should “speak softer” while being more aggressive with rivals like Russian President President Vladimir Putin.
Cornyn, during a morning appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, called on Obama to move to a foreign policy modeled after former President Theodore Roosevelt’s mantra of “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
One example is combating Russia’s recent aggression, on which Cornyn, echoing other Republican members, says Obama has been too soft.
Obama’s tactics thus far, including the economic sanctions he has implemented, are inadequate, Cornyn said. To change Putin’s behavior, Obama should take steps such as providing weapons to Ukraine’s military, he said.
Cornyn criticized Obama for, as he put it, a belief in a “false dichotomy” that an American president has but two options in response to a global crisis: put US boots on the ground or do nothing substantial.
On Ukraine, Obama administration officials say they have determined that providing lethal military aid to Ukrainian forces would only further destabilize that nation and increase the risk of a full-out war.
Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, told a Senate panel earlier this month that “it’s not the military balance that’s going to change the calculus for President Putin.
“He will know that it will be bloody if he chooses to intervene militarily in Ukraine. Make no mistake, it will be bloody and it will be a disaster tactically and certainly strategically,” Farkas said. “So I think that adding more military — lethal military equipment into the equation, into the balance, isn’t going to change things.”
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden responded to Cornyn’s statement by saying, “That’s not an accurate description of the president’s view.”
She highlighted what Obama said during his recent visit to the Philippines.
“My job as commander in chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it. There are going to be times where there are disasters and difficulties and challenges all around the world, and not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us,” Obama said.
“But we can continue to speak out clearly about what we believe. Where we can make a difference using all the tools we’ve got in the toolkit, well, we should do so. And if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them.”
The Senate GOP whip said US presidents have a broad range of tools to respond to a crisis, including providing military airlift and sending arms shipments.
Cornyn’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy performance also included criticism for setting a “red line” on Syria — Bashar al-Assad using chemical arms — only to opt against enforcing it.
Such actions by a commander in chief are not “credible,” he said.
Obama last year indicated he would launch missile strikes after Assad’s forces allegedly used chemical weapons, only to temporarily seek congressional authorization to do so before quashing that when striking an international pact to remove Assad’s chemical arsenal.
In statements that offered a window in senior Republicans’ plans if the party wrestles control of the Senate from Democrats in November’s midterm elections, Cornyn called for “decoupling” defense spending caps from domestic ones. Such a move would allow the GOP to propose larger annual military budgets.
While that proposal will be met as good news by the Defense Department and US arms industry, experts like David Morris from consulting firm Kiplinger say the best Republicans likely could do is win 51 seats in the upper chamber. The result: continued gridlock, says Kiplinger.
“As we are seeing with the current Senate split, nine or 10 votes away is a long way from the 60 votes needed” to end debate on legislation and move to a final vote,” Morris told Defense News. Democrats typically can count on having 55 votes on legislation.
“The dysfunction we’ve seen in this Congress, when the Democrats are only five votes away from 60 is a serious indicator that being nine votes from 60 would be an excuse for the Senate to do nothing but the smallest bills,” Morris said.
That means Republicans, should they have a two-seat majority next year, would need nine Democrats or independents to join their side on any bill that proposes lifting the defense spending caps. If a bill proposed leaving in place the domestic caps, it’s unclear whether they would get a single Democratic vote, and there are only two independents, including liberal Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Another path to getting rid of the caps would be a grand fiscal bargain that deals with issues like tax reform, entitlement program changes and the national debt.
The White House and congressional Republicans blame one another for the many failed attempts at striking that kind of accord over the last few years.
“Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton,” Cornyn quipped, a reference to how the latter altered his tactics after voters handed him a tough-to-maneuver breakdown of Republicans-versus-Democrats on Capitol Hill.