Commentary

Good, Bad, and Ugly GOP Foreign Policy: Chris Christie among Worst as No Republican Stands for Peace

The GOP’s ten-man “adult” debate in Cleveland was spirited, but shed little light on foreign policy. There were important differences among the participants, but few were exposed. For instance, elsewhere Donald Trump opined that Crimea was Europe’s problem and asked why Washington still defended South Korea. These are important sentiments which indicate that the bombastic billionaire has more functioning brain cells than do his more mainstream opponents.

No multi-candidate forum can delve deeply into such complex issues. However, even those Republicans who have attempted to impress by giving formal foreign policy addresses have come up short. The GOP contenders have been largely captured by a reflexive, even rabid interventionism which ignores consequences and experience.

The position of several candidates can be summarized as “kill a foreigner for Jesus.” They profess to love God even as they seek to wreak death and destruction around the globe. Leading the hawks is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate’s unabashedly pro-war caucus. In the hawkish middle some candidates demonstrate hints of reluctance—Ted Cruz and John Kasich broke with neoconservative orthodoxy on Syria and the Balkans, respectively. Sen. Rand Paul brings up the rear, uncomfortably gyrating between his father and the GOP conventional wisdom.

At least he admitted that “invading Iraq was a mistake.” The others almost uniformly ignore the disastrous consequences of that conflict. Rick Santorum believes the Islamic State magically “came about because they hate everything that we believe in,” rather than as an off-shoot of al-Qaeda created by Bush’s war. However, when it comes to Iran everyone, including Paul, prefers to play for votes by posturing as champions of Israel even if it means another Middle Eastern war.

Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush have given longer addresses, attempting to play the role of profound international thinkers, yet all offered the usual neocon clichés, huffing and puffing about American greatness, insisting on the panacea of U.S. “leadership,” and acting as if a presidential frown is enough to bring the globe into line with Washington’s dreams of glory. Indeed, they apparently believe that simply intoning “leadership” is sufficient to resolve America’s many international challenges.

Christie easily staked his claim to being most committed to violating Americans’ civil liberties through surveillance of dubious value. He cited the importance of intelligence after his party ignored the warnings of intelligence professionals and shaded the evidence to back the Bush invasion of Iraq. He denounced Edward Snowden: “When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy.” Yet Christie provided no remedy to public officials willing to violate the law and sacrifice peoples’ liberties in pursuit of what they consider to be the higher good. He complained about defenders of liberties being “ideologues,” yet opposed any restraints on the new, far-reaching presidential powers that he demanded.

The GOP contenders have been largely captured by a reflexive, even rabid interventionism which ignores consequences and experience.

His foreign policy views are even worse. At age 52 Christie declared: “I don’t believe that I have ever lived in a time in my life when the world was a more dangerous and scary place.” This is simple nonsense. When in history has a country been as secure as America from existential and even substantial threats? Christie barely missed the Cuban missile crisis. During his life the Cold War raged, the Vietnam War was lost, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and China’s Mao Zedong unleashed the bloody and brutal Cultural Revolution. North Korea seized the USS Pueblo. Iraq and Iran fought a horrific eight-year war. Many Third World conflicts became proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. People talked about the potential for a “nuclear winter” from the exchange of nuclear weapons. Christie believes current problems to be more dangerous and scary?

In this world he worried that “American power is in retreat.” He appears to believe that the U.S., which vastly outspends its potential adversaries and is allied with every major industrialized power save China and Russia, is a weak, frightened, almost helpless victim of the new Mordor. Stop intervening abroad and it will be a Night of Living Dead with America overrun by the enemy lurking outside every door.

Instead of a world never before so dominated by a single power, Christie sees threats everywhere. For instance, “Russian troops march across the lands of a sovereign European state.” Well yes, if you view as vital the eastern edge of Ukraine, historically ruled from Moscow and independent barely a quarter of a century. And if you ignore Washington’s provocative role in pushing to overthrow an elected government friendly to Russia on the latter’s border and install officials friendly to America.

“Terror has become a permanent way of life” in Bagdad, Damascus, Aden, and Tripoli. Yes, after Washington blew up the Iraqi and Libyan governments, leaving chaos in their wakes. Yemen and Syria are engulfed in tragic civil wars, the first running back decades; today U.S. intervention actually is aiding terrorists in both lands.

“In the South China Sea, Chinese vessels raise islands and military bases … in disputed waters.” Rather like the young American republic pushed excessive territorial claims against its neighbors. The U.S. claims none of the disputed areas and Beijing’s efforts have triggered hostile reactions from its neighbors, encouraging them, with the most at stake, to act together to constrain Beijing.

“Israeli citizens live their lives in the shadow of the Iranian menace—while our diplomats toast the promises of the ayatollahs.” Actually, Israel is the dominant regional power with 200 nuclear weapons and has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran. Tehran suffered under a U.S.-supported dictatorship for a quarter century and through an eight-year war with U.S.-backed Iraq. Today Iran possesses a decrepit military dating back years, lacks nukes, and confronts the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, which spend a multiple of what Tehran does on the military.

Horrid threats all these are but, miracle of miracles, many are “solvable through the exertion of strong leadership by the person sitting in the Oval Office,” especially if that person is Chris Christie. Alas, the president of the U.S. previously was unable to wish away even Somalia’s warlords, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Iraq’s Sunni rebels, and a host of decrepit Third World regimes, such as North Korea, Sudan, Iran, and Libya, let alone the Soviet Union and China.

Like most Republican presidential wannabes, Christie is enamored of alliances. “Building stronger alliances” is a “pillar” of his foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy is based on “strength, leadership and partnership with the people and nations who share our values,” he explained. Like the totalitarian Saudis, brutal Egyptian military, and dictatorial Central Asian states?

Christie complained that the Obama administration “doesn’t seem to care about all the blood and sweat and treasure that it took to build those alliances.” Actually, all we had to do was promise to defend or pay them and they flocked to Washington. Not much effort at all. Anyway, the “sunk cost,” as economists call it, tells us nothing about the alliances’ relevance today. Christie apparently hasn’t noticed that the Cold War is over. We did indeed give allies “a zone for peace in which to choose a future for themselves,” which worked—so most now can provide that zone for themselves.

For instance, South Korea has 40 times the GDP of the North; Japan, with the world’s third largest economy, also is well able to defend itself. Europe has a larger GDP and population than America and multiple of those of Russia. Yet, insisted Christie, “our commitment to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe is absolute.” Why? Only two of the latter can be bothered to spend as much as two percent of GDP on defense. Most spend far less. So Christie advocates pressuring the Europeans to do more. Does he believe that previous presidents didn’t think of the obvious? Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has urged greater European efforts but asking, whining, and even begging has had little effect. Yet Christie, weirdly, is upset that the Poles followed his advice by training to defend themselves.

Many so-called allies are security black holes, making America less secure. Instead of choosing to ally with nations which can help America, Washington now joins with the weak and infirm. How did adding the Baltic States make America more secure? What conceivable value would come from bringing in Kosovo, Montenegro, or Macedonia? Why would Washington wish to confront nuclear-armed Moscow over interests the latter considers vital by defending nations such as Georgia and Ukraine, which always have been and remain irrelevant to America’s security?

Christie spoke of “cynical times with cynical politics,” which was particularly pronounced when he insisted that “Our commitment to Israel must be absolute” and “unshakeable.” Israel could destroy any and every nation in the region. Given its counterproductive Palestinian occupation, Israel most needs a friend willing to offer advice rather than adulation. Yet last year Christie groveled before billionaire and potential campaign contributor Sheldon Adelson, apologizing for accurately describing the West Bank as “occupied territories.”

There is no reason to assume that allies’ concerns are important, let alone vital concerns of America. Indeed, in complaining that the U.S. hasn’t properly cared for its friends Christie aids their attempts to manipulate the U.S. Ironically, he and fellow neocons routinely dismiss allied concerns when other states urge peace. His real complaint is not that allies are helpless, but that they are not: “When allies lose confidence in us, they take matters into their own hands.” Horrors! In Christie’s view, Washington should grab control to “help manage events.” Never mind the unnecessary loss in lives and money.

Christie was particularly upset that the Saudi king decided not to come to America to the administration’s Gulf summit. This is a country that has financed radical Islamic madrassahs around the world; underwritten terrorism, including al-Qaeda; backed Islamist radicals in Syria; started an unnecessary, aggressive war in Yemen; and suppressed political and religious liberty at home. Christie should reread the section of his speech about how America should “stand with those who share our values and interests.”

U.S. forces continue to patrol the globe, but Christie claimed that all manner of problems were occurring “because American power is in retreat.” The answer? Leadership, of course! That requires a stronger defense, even though most of our military spending goes to underwrite wealthy countries capable of protecting themselves. That is welfare, and it has the same effect as domestic social programs, discouraging other nations from providing for themselves.

Christie argued that “We didn’t have to be a global policeman who solved every problem,” but that’s what Washington has done with perpetual social engineering all over— foreign aid, military intervention, war and more in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq (twice!), Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and more. Of course, the GOP uber-hawks would have made war even more often, including against North Korea, Iran, Georgia, and Ukraine.In Christie’s view a simple angry glance from Washington would deter adversaries. Squandered U.S. credibility is why Russia grabbed Crimea, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used force against his opponents, and “Iranian-backed militias are rampaging across Yemen.” It isn’t clear if Christie is merely ignorant or dishonest, or both. Washington never was going to go to war over Crimea with nuclear-armed Russia, which Moscow recognized. If Christie would have done so he should never even be invited to visit the Oval Office. Assad was determined to remain in power and therefore had to fight, irrespective of the cost; giving in to Washington would have meant giving up. Yemen’s Houthis have been in revolt for decades and have never had much connection to Iran, let alone America; Saudi Arabia turned that fight into a sectarian war.

Of course, Christie demanded more military outlays. He fairly complained of the mismatch between resources and objectives, without recognizing that the problem is outsize commitments. It would be easier “to work harder to keep our edge” if Washington didn’t constantly squander Americans’ resources defending other nations’ interests, enriching already prosperous nations, and attempting the hopeless task of rebuilding failed states.

Christie insisted that “What happened on 9/11 must never happen again.” But, like Rudi Giuliani before him, Christie failed to understand that wandering the globe while promiscuously supporting authoritarian regimes, aiding foreign combatants, dropping drones and, most important, bombing, invading, and occupying other lands creates enemies determined to do America ill. This is an explanation, not a justification. Christie failed to consider how Americans would respond if on the receiving end of such polices. It isn’t enough to kill America’s enemies. Washington should stop making so many of them.

Rubio and Bush also have given formal speeches, but sound no better than Christie. Only in saying less does Bush appear to less dangerous. Most of the other candidates also sound similar, though most have yet to deliver an official foreign policy address. For instance, the “major” candidates Scott Walker and Michael Huckabee and the “minor” candidates Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Rick Perry all promise brave new interventions and wars.

Foreign policy won’t decide the 2016 election. The majority of Americans don’t care much about foreign policy. Although many say they are dissatisfied with President Obama’s international approach, the number is not increasing much. More important, to the extent they pay attention, the American people don’t support GOP war-mongering. A strong majority still believes President Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure to be a tragic mistake. A majority also appears to back the Iran agreement; there certainly is not much support for war, the likely consequence of the Republican demand for de facto surrender by Tehran.

But foreign policy inevitably affects and often deforms domestic policy as well. “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the gem of every other,” worried James Madison, one of America’s most influential founders. If Republicans really believe in limited government and individual liberty, they must drop their reflexive support for intervention and war. It is time for a real Republican debate over foreign and military policy.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.