The Republican debate in Milwaukee was billed as being on the subject of economics but, to my mind, the biggest and most interesting differences that were exposed had to do with how the U.S. deals with the rest of the world, not only in trade policy but also in immigration and security affairs.
Ever since World War II, the Republican Party has been the party of a strong defense, an internationalist foreign policy, and free trade. That wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s provincial Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover pursued isolationist, protectionist policies exemplified by the Kellogg-Briand Pact supposedly outlawing war, the Washington Naval Conference limiting naval munitions, and the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill. We all know how that worked out: Those policies contributed to the outbreak of the Great Depression and World War II. After 1945, a few Republicans such as Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and Senator Robert Taft (“Mr. Republican”) hoped to take the United States back to those failed policies. To avert such a disaster, Dwight Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 and made the Republican Party the strong internationalist party it has been ever since under presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bushes and under nominees Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
Yet it was clear from the debate that not all of the GOP candidates are content with this Reaganite foreign policy — and it wasn’t just Rand Paul, a marginal figure, who was making the case for pulling back from the world. So, too, was Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner. His comments were very telling and very dismaying.
While claiming “I love trade. I’m a free trader, 100 percent,” Trump trashed the biggest free-trade pact in the world — the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trotting out the standard protectionist argument, he said, “If it is approved, it will just be more bad trade deals, more loss of jobs for our country.” Granted, Trump was a bit hazy about what the TPP is actually about; he seemed to think that it would provide a huge advantage to China, which isn’t a member. But his sentiment is clear: Free trade is for losers. Virtually every serious economist would disagree.
Trump is equally scornful of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has benefitted the economies of Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. He blames it for accelerating the flow of immigrants to the United States — and he proposes to put up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (with no explanation of how this is possible) and to deport some 11 million undocumented immigrants (again, with no explanation of how this is possible).
But this was just a warm-up for his full-throated isolationism, when he suggested that Vladimir Putin (with whom he claimed some mysterious kinship) should be given a free hand in Syria and the United States shouldn’t do more to help Ukraine because its neighbors (none of whom he is able to identify, I’m sure) aren’t doing enough. “We have to get smart,” Trump bellowed. “We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world. We are $19 trillion dollars, we have a country that’s going to hell, we have an infrastructure that’s falling apart. Our roads, our bridges, our schools, our airports, and we have to start investing money in our country.”
Trump showed no awareness that his “nation building begins at home” trope is borrowed from Barack Obama, a man he despises and whom he has previously accused of falsifying his birth certificate. He also showed, of course, no awareness of what would happen if the U.S. stopped policing the world as it has been doing since 1942. What, for example, would happen to American international trade, almost all of which travels by sea, if the sea lanes are not policed by the U.S. Navy?
As if to inoculate himself from charges that he is a wimp in foreign affairs — the lowest blow that a man with such advanced machismo could suffer — Trump compensated by offering one of the most hare-brained ideas of the day, suggesting that after the Iraq War, “We should have kept the oil, believe me. We should have kept the oil. And, you know what? We should have given the oil… we should’ve given big chunks to the people that lost their arms, their legs, and their families, and their sons, and daughters, because right now, you know who has a lot of that oil? Iran, and ISIS.”
So, Trump is an isolationist except in his desire to seize Iraqi oil fields. Has he given any thought to how many troops would be needed to protect said oil fields from an Iraqi populace understandably outraged at this blatant theft? Now there’s a policy that is certain to make America safe.
Ben Carson, who for inexplicable reasons is in a dead heat with Trump for the Republican lead, offered a proposal as daffy as Trump’s. He, too, called for seizing Iraqi oil fields, not to compensate wounded vets, but to hurt ISIS: “And I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate. And you look for the easiest place to do that? It would be in Iraq. And if — outside of Anbar in Iraq, there’s a big energy field. Take that from them. Take all of that land from them. We could do that, I believe, fairly easily, I’ve learned from talking to several generals, and then you move on from there.”
So Carson thinks that there is some giant oil field in Iraq controlled by ISIS? In fact, most of the oil production that ISIS controls is in Syria. But oil is hardly the only revenue source that ISIS has (kidnappings and taxation are also big), and it is unrealistic to expect that either (a) it would be easy to seize and hold an oil field, or (b) that doing so would somehow lead to ISIS’s defeat.
Luckily, Trump and Casron did not have the stage to themselves. John Kasich beautifully exposed the silliness of Trump’s claims to deport all illegal immigrants: “But for the 11 million people, come on, folks. We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border. It’s a silly argument. It is not an adult argument. It makes no sense.”
Jeb Bush offered a great rejoinder to Trump’s claims that the U.S. can’t police the world: “Donald’s wrong on this. He is absolutely wrong on this. We’re not going to be the world’s policeman, but we sure as heck better be the world’s leader. That’s — there’s a huge difference where, without us leading… voids are filled, and the idea that it’s a good idea for Putin to be in Syria, let ISIS take out Assad, and then Putin will take out ISIS? I mean, that’s like a board game, that’s like playing Monopoly or something. That’s not how the real world works.”
Marco Rubio, meanwhile, was his usual eloquent self in denouncing the weak foreign policy that Trump would like to continue:
“Vladimir Putin is exploiting that weakness, for purposes of edging the Americans out as the most important geopolitical power broker in the region. And we do have a vested interest. And here’s why. Because all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan. Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win, or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”
This divide on foreign policy is all the more reason that it is imperative that someone like Trump or Carson not win the nomination. The country cannot afford a return to the failed Republican policies of the pre-World War II era.