The GOP Debate: Clear Foreign Policy Contrasts

The GOP Debate: Clear Foreign Policy Contrasts


The first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle was a truly substantive affair. While there was some bombast, it was mostly a very sober discussion of policy differences. Naturally, all eight candidates on the stage agreed that President Joe Biden should be fired. On abortion, the differences were mostly confined to tactics. The real major divergence came on key foreign policy issues. Divisions that came about with the emergence of Ron Paul in 2008 have not fully healed.


Fairly or not, former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney left office with the Neoconservative brand tarnished. The Ron Paul Paleocons lost the ideological battle but won the war with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Trump’s foreign policy was basically Ron Paul’s, but with sanity. Trump favored muscular non-interventionism, while Paul despite the denials of his supporters had a strong isolationist strain. With Trump’s ascendancy in 2016, Neocons like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush were left in the dust. The 2023 Fox News debate in Milwaukee brought the Neocons back with a vengeance. Their conflict with the Paleocons reached a boiling point.


The Paleocon wing was represented by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramswamy. DeSeantis served in the military and favors the muscular non-interventionist Trump approach to foreign policy. Ramaswamy claims to be a Trump disciple, but his comments at the debate were Ron Paul isolationist.


The Neocon side was represented most forcefully by former South Carolina Governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. Despite being Trump’s Vice President, this debate saw Mike Pence return unapologetically to his Neocon roots.


On two particular foreign policy issues, the differences could not have been more stark.


On Israel, Ramaswamy reiterated cutting off aid to Israel in 2028. He tried to explain this as an act of tough love that will benefit America’s friend Israel in the long run. Haley was having none of this. She torched his position as wrong for America, Israel and the world. She pointed out that America needs Israel as a bulwark against hostile Middle East actors. Pence and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott are proud overt evangelical Christians and supporters of Israel. On this issue, Ramaswamy stood alone as DeSantis stayed quiet. DeSantis has expressed a desire to cut foreign aid to many nations but is also a staunch Israel supporter.


Ukraine saw the sharpest differences that separated the adults from the unserious individuals. Ramaswamy actually claimed that the United States has no national interest in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Pence upbraided Ramaswamy during the debate as a “rookie.”


Pence was right. For decades, the Republican Party and Democrats beyond the anti-war crowd understood the rights of sovereign nations. One nation cannot simply gobble up another nation with impunity. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, former President George Herbert Walker Bush declared that “This will not stand.” Russia’s Vladimir Putin exposed the weakness of former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden by seizing Crimea without consequences.


As Pence, Haley and North Dakota Doug Burgum pointed out, Russia conquering Ukraine would have catastrophic global consequences. China would be emboldened to seize Taiwan. The dreaded World War III would be a plausible scenario.


Burgum was not asked about Israel, and North Dakota has one Chabad House in Fargo that sometimes gets a Minyan. Yet on China, Burgum showed himself to be as serious as Ramaswamy was glib. Ramaswamy’s boldness in seeking to gut the administrative state is overshadowed by a foreign policy approach that is naïve and dangerous.


The big winner of the debate was the Bush-Cheney foreign policy approach. At the very least, the Ron Paul approach is being rejected as the GOP returns to its adulthood roots. The world is globally connected. Burrowing our heads in the sand is no longer an option. For those who still need a clear reminder, the September 11th attacks are the consequences of believing that overseas problems stay overseas. Taking the fight to bad actors everywhere is the only way to keep them from spilling American blood on American soil.

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