Have the Republicans running for president totally given up on foreign policy?
It is easy to draw that conclusion given the blackout on discussions of foreign policy during the record number of GOP primary debates.
A debate focused on foreign policy is scheduled for this weekend but it almost seems as if it could result in hours of dead air -- silence.
John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the key reason he considered launching a long-shot bid for the Republican nomination is because the current GOP field has abandoned foreign policy debates. Nothing has changed since the start of the year when Bolton first made that complaint.
So far, the best the Republican candidates can do with world affairs is to be against whatever President Obama is doing. That led to several of them flip-flopping on U.S. policy in Libya and then refusing to acknowledge the President’s successful use of a U.N. resolution and allied military forces to oust the Qaddafi regime.
The candidates have offered vague expressions of discontent about the president being too quick to apologize for past foreign policy missteps, particularly in the Middle East. But conciliatory outreach and less bombastic U.S. rhetoric seems appropriate given the Arab Spring, with its call for more democratic government in the region, is achieving a long-sought goal of both Republicans and Democrats.
In fact, the surprising lack of foreign policy discussion among the GOP candidates is a backhanded compliment to President Obama’s success in foreign affairs. He has snatched the heart of foreign policy -- national security after 9-11 -- away from Republicans.
In next year’s general election President Obama will campaign as the president who killed America’s number one enemy, Usama bin Laden; effectively used drones to decimate Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks; successfully protected America from any further attacks and killed a top terrorist recruiter Anwar Al-Awlaki. The president can also say he helped the Libyan people overthrow the Qaddafi, another major enemy of the United States, without losing a single American soldier.
By holding the upper hand on national security President Obama has denied this current crop of GOP candidates the traditional Republican complaint that Democrats are soft on foreign policy.
Since Reagan’s defense buildup, Republicans have owned the national security issue and won many elections on the idea that they were tougher than the Democrats on defense. Because of his foreign policy accomplishments, Obama is in position to beat the GOP at that game.
The combination of President Obama’s strong national security record and the nation’s economic troubles have combined to twist the GOP contenders into some very unfamiliar policy positions on foreign policy. Instead of trumpeting America as a model to the world, the Republicans are now citing other nations as models for how to improve U.S. domestic policies.
The one foreign nation getting somewhat regular mention from the candidates is Israel. But the candidates talk about Israel in terms of American domestic politics. The candidates compete to reassure the powerful block of Evangelical and neo-conservative voters in the GOP primaries that they are completely supportive of Israel and critical of President Obama’s sometimes testy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As a result of pledging uncritical support for all Israeli policies some of the candidates have found themselves backing military action against Israel’s sworn enemy, Iran.
Herman Cain has gone so far as to warn that he views any Iranian action against Israel as an attack on the U.S.; Gov. Rick Perry supports an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said as president he would not stop Israel from attacking Iran; former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum agrees and also approves of direct action by the U.S. military against Iran; former Utah Governor and ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman said he, too, is open to American military action against Iran. Mitt Romney is more moderate in limiting his policy to the presence of U.S. aircraft carriers near Iran.
The only candidate ruling out an American attack on Iran is Rep. Ron Paul. He dares to say he wants better diplomatic relations with Iran but won’t stand in the way if Israel decides it has to attack Iran.
Once the GOP candidates offer their standard support for Israel there is only one other nation getting occasional mention from the candidates -- China. Taking his cue from Donald Trump who advocated a 25% tariff on Chinese goods during his flirtation with a presidential run, Romney is arguing for changes in U.S. trade policy in response to China’s economic success as an exporter because of the depressed value of its currency.
There are only two Republicans running for the nomination who have strong foreign policy credentials: Huntsman, as the former U.S. ambassador to China, has the best credentials by far and Gingrich, who has a long history of engaging debates on foreign policy.
With the GOP campaign less than 60 days away from the first votes in the Iowa caucuses there is an outside chance that the upcoming debate on foreign policy could vault Gingrich even more in the polls or even wind up helping Huntsman with voters.
But silence is more likely.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His latest book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) which was released in July.