GOP Presidential Candidates Define Foreign Policy

Originally published on July 6, 2011 6:59 am
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At a debate last month, Representative Michele Bachmann said it was a mistake to launch military operations in Libya.

MICHELE BACHMANN: First of all, we were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack. There was no vital national interest.

INSKEEP: Statements like that have raised some concern about isolationism in the Republican Party. That's the word used recently by the last Republican nominee, John McCain, who supports the operation in Libya.

JOHN MCCAIN: There's always been an isolationist strain on the Republican Party, but now it seems to have moved more center stage.

INSKEEP: Welcome back to the program.

CHARLIE BLACK: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: When John McCain talks about isolationism in the Republican Party historically, what does he mean?

BLACK: Well, he goes back even to the 1930s and '40s, when Republican leaders in Congress were more reluctant to get engaged in World War II than was the Democratic president, FDR. It's always been the majority view among Republicans in Congress and Republicans nationally to be internationalists, to reflect John McCain's views. But there's always been a few dissenters.

INSKEEP: When you talk about being internationalists, that becomes a hot-button issue when the question is whether to go to war, whether to go into Iraq, whether to go into Libya. Are there other ways, though, that that becomes a difficult issue for some members of the Republican Party?

BLACK: I think, actually, the leaders of both parties believe America should play a large role in the world, that we need to maintain a strong national defense to protect our own country and our own interests around the world. That said, when you get to the details, it gets difficult. The Libya example, there are divergent views among both Republicans and Democrats as to whether we should've done anything in Libya.

INSKEEP: So is foreign policy - and particularly America's wars at the moment - going to be a tricky issue for any challenger to President Obama in the coming year?

BLACK: I think it's tricky. I think that each candidate, no matter who gets nominated, they'll have to draw a contrast with President Obama where there is one on foreign policy and national security. But that said, in this election, the economy and jobs are going to be 90 percent of the equation.

INSKEEP: I want to play a little bit of tape here, if I might, a couple more of the current Republican presidential candidates. First, let's listen to Mitt Romney talking about what he would like to do with the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

MITT ROMNEY: It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals, that we can hand the country over.

INSKEEP: Okay, it's time for us to bring the troops home. But then by the time he starts qualifying that, that sounds like a statement that President Obama or almost any president could endorse.

BLACK: Well, I think the point he made in the end is that it should be subject to conditions on the ground and the advice of the generals as to whether the country would be secure. That is President Obama's position. It's John McCain's position. It's the position of most national leaders in both parties.

INSKEEP: Now let's listen to another candidate, Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota.

TIM PAWLENTY: Parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.

INSKEEP: Which parts?

BLACK: I think he made a strong internationalist foreign policy speech and did try to draw some contrast with those who say we should maybe not be in Libya, we don't have an obligation to help the people in Egypt or Syria, and some others who have called for earlier withdrawal from Afghanistan. I know that was his point.

INSKEEP: How significant, if at all, do you think is it that we have had a year of events that it is hard for Americans to know what to make of them? 9/11, you clearly knew that there was a terrible attack on the United States. The Arab uprisings of this year, there's great uncertainty about whether it is good for the United States, bad for the United States. Does that affect the political climate here at all?

BLACK: I think it does. I think it puts uncertainty in the minds of some voters, because these are huge developments in the world, and the average American doesn't know what it means. Our leaders don't know exactly what it means, what is going to happen in Egypt, what's the future in Libya or Tunisia or what's going to happen in Syria.

INSKEEP: Charlie Black, thanks very much.

BLACK: Thank you, Steve. Good to be with you.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.