US President Barack Obama enters the stadium Wednesday at West Point to give the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s second term foreign policy efforts are being dinged from the political right — and left. That should be good news for potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates, right? Maybe not, says one Republican insider.
The tepid applause heard Wednesday during Obama’s big foreign speech at West Point continued into the night on cable news and in your correspondent’s inbox into the next day. Republicans hate Obama’s narrow view of using American military power around the globe; Democrats seem to be mostly taking this approach: “Ehh…”
On the surface, Obama’s foreign policy struggles should give GOP presidential candidates lots of red meat to serve on the 2016 campaign trail. But, as J.J. Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning Washington think tank, points out in a new piece, it could be big trouble for Republicans.
Writing on Heritage’s The Foundry blog, Carafano notes that if Obama’s global actions continue to sputter, “America’s role in the world could well become a legitimate issue in the 2016 presidential election.” If it does, he posits, “nobody will be running on ‘four more years’ of the Obama Doctrine.”
(One might add that it would be hard to do so because there is such a wide range of scholarship and disagreement about what that doctrine even is.)
Carafano points out that should foreign policy become a top-shelf 2016 issue, it will pose “a tougher than usual challenge for conservative candidates.
“The conservative consensus on defense fractured in the wake of the Iraq War,” he writes. “Ronald Reagan’s mantra of ‘peace through strength’ barely resonates with many in the movement.”
So-called ‘establishment’ Republicans like Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas often, as he did in a speech Wednesday at Heritage, cite Reagan’s mantra as the party’s proper foreign policy approach. However, the tea party/libertarian wing, led by Sen. Rand Paul of Texas, has been accused of being isolationist. And, to be sure, the Paul wing does express a less-hawkish view of America’s global role.
Carafano offers what amounts to several warnings for potential GOP candidates and their campaign staffs:
“Some conservative candidates may be tempted to carve out their own brand of foreign policy by running to the extreme ends of the right wing. But neither an ‘isolationist’ candidate nor an ‘interventionist’ candidate will be able to build a foreign policy consensus among the conservative rank-and-file.
“An uncivil civil war over defense and foreign affairs will drive the conservative movement apart. And, in the end, it won’t deliver presidential policies that most Americans will sign up for.”
The Heritage analyst advises the GOP field to think hard about electability when forging a foreign policy stance. And that, he writes, means portraying one’s self or one’s candidate as “a person of prudence, character and judgment — someone [voters] can trust to take the steps needed to protect America’s interests in a dangerous world.”
He also advises them to avoid “squabbling over the extreme edges of policy” and “infighting.”
Given the party’s internal troubles since, oh, around 2010, and a potential broad range of foreign policy approaches among those who might join the 2016 presidential field, the Carafano Playbook deserves careful study.
(Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Defense News’ Intercepts blog.)