In theory, 2016 was poised to be the foreign policy election. After all, Hillary Clinton’s main credential for running is her stint as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Then there are the growing challenges abroad — the rising threat of ISIS, the resurgence of al Qaeda, the menace of Putinism and a newly aggressive China, all of which should mean the party historically most trusted on national security would make the crumbling world a special feature of its electoral appeal.
But no. Here’s the trouble: Donald Trump not only knows nothing about national security, he doesn’t care to know.
The truth is that for those in the national security firmament who support him, Trump’s appeal is not in a set of proactive solutions, it is in not being Hillary. Similarly, his newly minted running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, while known as a hawk with a generous dose of compassionate conservatism (think PEPFAR, the HIV prevention and treatment program he supported as a congressman), has never made foreign policy his signature issue. (Worse yet, poor Pence will face the challenge of worrying his putative boss will contradict every serious pronouncement on foreign policy unless it parrots his own sloganeering style.)
And there’s more trouble: Trump is consistent only in his inconsistency on national security issues. He has excoriated Clinton for her vote to approve the Iraq War, but has indicated he is untroubled by Pence’s identical vote (not to speak of his own previous support for that war). He has called for pulling out of NATO, but demanded NATO do more, including join his “unpredictable” fight against terrorism. He has also called for a ban on Muslim immigration, but wants Muslim nations to do more to fight ISIS. And then there’s his counter ISIS strategy: “unbelievable” intelligence; “very few troops”; we are going to “wipe out ISIS”, which, by the way, “Hillary Clinton invented.” Huh?
President Barack Obama has bequeathed to his successor a nation at war with itself, involved in three ill-managed, strategy-less wars abroad, unprecedentedly terrible relations with key allies, and problems so diverse and so thorny they will likely plague the next few presidents.
In politics, this is what should be called an opportunity for the other party. But instead, prominent Republican national security leaders — people like Marco Rubio, John McCain, Bob Corker — are largely steering clear of the candidate and the convention. And others, like Tom Cotton, who is attending, are engaging in somersaults to align some — and only some — of their views with the likely nominee. (And this didn’t stop Cotton telling the Washington Post on the eve of his appearance at the convention that “I surrogate for no man.”)
It has been said many times that the measure of a leader is not in his embrace of the specifics, but his vision for the nation’s role in the world. For Republicans, that means that wonks like Richard Nixon and anti-nerds like George W. Bush have shared a sense of their country’s place in history. Donald Trump, for his part, seems only to have a strong sense of his own place at the center of the universe. He insists, like the isolationists of yore, that he will put America first; but the policy implications of that impulse — xenophobia, bigotry, hostility to trade and markets — have only a terrible historical analog. Surely Trump cannot seek to bring back the Depression and the 1930s?
For many of us who would indeed like to make America great again, it has become clear that the route to achieving that greatness will not be through Cleveland, or the 2016 GOP. The Republican Party has an auspicious history, and much to be proud of: The end of slavery, the end of the Cold War, a pride in America that has been well-deserved.
But this year, the GOP convention promises to be as disappointing as the campaign has been thus far: a reminder that in an increasingly perilous world, GOP voters are set on a reality TV host whose appeal lies in his nativism, brash and unapologetic ignorance and the irrefutable fact that he is not Hillary Clinton.