The GOP’s potential 2016 candidates are literally all over the map when it comes to Ukraine, Crimea and the broader issues of President Obama’s foreign policy. From the would-be elder statesman, Mitt Romney—who’s not really running, not yet anyway—to the emerging, pro-neoconservative hawk Marco Rubio, to the libertarian/isolationist Rand Paul and beyond, it’s clear that the Republican party is hardly speaking with anything like a unified voice on international affairs. Yet few of them any ideas about what to do.
Romney, writing in The Wall Street Journal this week, penned a scathing critique of Obama, perhaps seeking to justify his widely ridiculed 2012 comment that Russian is now America’s “Number One geopolitical foe.” (Back then, Vladimir Putin thanked Romney for his honesty, adding, “The most important thing for us is that even if he doesn’t win now, he or a person with similar views may come to power in four years. We must take that into consideration while dealing with security issues for a long perspective.” That 2012 remark by Putin might provide some insight as to why the Russian autocrat is acting so forcefully vis-à-vis Ukraine.)
In his Journal piece, Romney says that lately it seems that the only thing the United States can do is to “wring our hands” in the face of crises from Crimea to Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama, he said, always acts too little, and too late. And he concludes:
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton traveled the world in pursuit of their promise to reset relations and to build friendships across the globe. Their failure has been painfully evident: It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office, and now Russia is in Ukraine. Part of their failure, I submit, is due to their failure to act when action was possible, and needed.
It should be noted that Romney has no solutions or suggested policies for all of these problems now, only saying that they could have been averted if Obama had acted sooner. To Romney’s credit, he doesn’t propose military action of any kind, not does he suggest, say, bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Instead, he bemoans Obama’s earlier inaction, adding: “We failed to act at the propitious point; that moment having passed, we were left without acceptable options.”
Marco Rubio, in recent weeks, has been trying to corner the GOP market on hardline, neoconservative foreign policy, and he’s got lots of ideas about what to do now over Crimea. It should be noted that at his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland two weeks ago, with Christie Watch in attendance, Rubio delivered a sharp critique of Obama’s foreign policy, but unlike Romney he hewed much more closely to the hawkish view and to the idea of American “exceptionalism.” He said: “We are on the verge, if we make the right decisions, of a new American Century.”
And then he verged on paranoia and outright fantasy, suggesting that unless we react now, “in ten years, missiles from North Korea will be able to strike the West Coast, and missiles from Iran will be capable of hitting the East Coast.” Addressing the attendees at CPAC, in which Rand Paul’s noninterventionist legions were well-represented, Rubio adopted almost a pleading tone, asking the CPAC crowd to get with the program. “Without American engagement, the world I described to you [with Iranian and North Korean missiles targeting the United States] is a real probability!” Perhaps seeking to analogize in ways that CPAC can understand, he concluded with this non-zinger: “If you think Obamacare is bad for our economy, so is Chinese control of the South China Sea.”
Well, whatever. In a series of recent op-eds, Rubio has lately tried to capture the high ground on Crimea. But, like Romney, Rubio has little to suggest. In a March 19 op-ed in The Washington Post, “Making Putin Pay,” the steps outlined by Rubio notably include no active military measures, merely actions to isolate Russia economically and politically, though he does call for US military aid to Ukraine and Georgia and, more provocatively, he wants Obama to “deploy additional military assets and even US personnel to our allies, including Poland and the Baltic states.”
Writing in Politico, way back on March 1, however, in a piece called “8 Steps Obama Must Take to Punish Russia,” he outlines an even milder program for confronting Putin. Except for his call to “eventually” bring Georgia into NATO, most of what Rubio recommends is mild, indeed: sanctions, a boycott of the G-8 in Sochi, and so on, nearly all of which President Obama actually did in response to the annexation of Crimea.
In other words, even the most hawkish of the likely 2016 GOP hopefuls doesn’t think that it’s possible to stop a determined Russia from acting out in Ukraine and Crimea.
Last but not least, Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who’s carved out the libertarian segment of the GOP, may be listening to his father’s voice. In a USA Today op-ed on March 17, “Crimea Secedes. So What?” Ron Paul, the former congressman who also sought the presidency, said: “What’s the big deal?…Why does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?”
But Rand Paul, the son and would-be 2016 standard-bearer, seems to be unsure what he thinks. He was pilloried by RedState.com, the ultraconservative outlet, for flip-flopping on Ukraine, first saying that the United States shouldn’t “tweak” Putin, in an interview with the Washington Post and then backtracking. (Intelligently, in his Post interview, Paul said: “I don’t think it behooves us to tell the Ukraine what to do. I’m not excited about saying ‘hey, let’s put the Ukraine in NATO’ to rub Russia’s nose in it.”) But, as RedState.com points out rather sarcastically, “and then he got tough.” In an op-ed for Time magazine, Paul called on the United States to isolate Russia and to “reinstitute the missile-defense shields President Obama abandoned in 2009 in Poland and the Czech Republic.” And he added:
The real problem is that Russia’s President is not currently fearful or threatened in any way by America’s President, despite his country’s blatant aggression. But let me be clear: If I were President, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it.
Perhaps Paul’s flip-flopping was induced, in part, by salvos of criticism coming from Ted Cruz, the Texas senator whose chances of becoming president are somewhere in the range of one in a hundred. Cruz, the Tea Party darling, hasn’t usually weighed in on foreign policy, but lately he’s been sharpening his critique of Paul. In an interview with ABC, Cruz said:
I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. I think US leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did…. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.
So, like some other GOPers, Cruz wants to put missiles in eastern Europe:
Beyond sanctions and aid to Ukraine, the most important thing we could be doing right now, with respect to Russia, is installing anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe. Appeasement has not worked. After more than five years of being unwilling to stand up to Putin and Russian aggression, it is time for the United States to honor our commitments to our friends.
In the past, though, Cruz has been even more bellicose, even if his ideas make little sense—such as ousting Russia from the UN Security Council:
If we were serious about standing up to Putin’s power grab, we would immediately suspend Russian membership in the Group of Eight (G8), which should consist of nations that can contribute to a civilized order. And if the Russians persist in this aggressive action, we should look into additional measures such as suspension from the World Trade Organization and even the United Nations Security Council.
Overall, it’s clear that the Republicans who want to run in 2016 are trying to balance toughness with the realization that, really, there’s not much that the United States can do now that Putin has his claws on Crimea.
Read Next: Tom Hayden warns that our new Cold War policies threaten democracy.