Republican debates: What I want to hear about our foreign policy challenges

The great thing about debates is that candidates can’t get away with the canned, bland lines of their stump speeches. They’re asked questions – and follow-up questions – about the specifics of their policies. Since people care more about issues close to home – taxes, jobs, health care, immigration, education and the range of social issues – foreign policy questions usually get short shrift. But this election promises to be, at least in part, about national security.

Most Americans – Republicans, Democrats and independents – think we’re on the wrong track. A majority believe we’re a superpower in decline, and we don’t like it. We want to restore America’s leadership role in the world, but we don’t know how to do it. Most Republican and independent voters, and even some Democrats, think it’s President Obama’s fault. We’re looking for a strong leader to reverse the trend, the way Ronald Reagan did in the ‘80s after Jimmy Carter’s disastrous presidency.

Yet most of the Republican candidates are governors or businessmen, with scant foreign policy experience. Few have waded into the perilous waters of national security with anything more than sound bites. When they have, they’ve criticized every one of Obama’s policies, roundly and soundly. They’ve also spoken up, loudly and proudly, to say that they, like Reagan, believe in Peace through Strength.

OK, so far so good. After all, who’s against peace? Who wants a weak America? Since every Republican voter loves Reagan, whose stature grows larger with every passing year, invoking him at every opportunity makes sense.

But Reagan filled in the details. As a member of his administration I saw firsthand how his policy to win the Cold War was a comprehensive and detailed plan to stress the Soviet economy to the breaking point while at the same time building up America’s defenses, economy and allies, and also giving covert aid to reformers behind the Iron Curtain.

What are you going to do to defeat Islamic extremism, prevent Russian revanche and check Chinese expansionism … and create jobs, revive the economy and restore the American dream?

With one or two exceptions, the 17 Republican candidates have not articulated comprehensive national security policies or taken decisive stands on the major issues. They’ve all said what they’re against, but few have said what they’re for. They’ve read speeches scripted by foreign policy aides, but you don’t get a sense that they’ve personally mastered the issues.

Here is what I’ll be looking for in Thursday’s afternoon and evening debates on FOX News.

IRAN – Every one of the Republican candidates has condemned the Obama/Kerry deal, but few have said what they would do instead, other than cancel it the minute they take the oath of office.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, perhaps in a joint U.S.-Israeli attack, and destroy Iran’s nuclear program. But surely there are hazards in this approach, since Iran would retaliate. Instead of emasculating Iran’s regime, such an attack could risk pushing the Iranian people – many of whom are now pro-American and fed up with the hard-line regime – to rally around their flag and stand with the mullahs. It might buy some time, but it could also push Iran to accelerate building a bomb.

Would the other candidates reimpose sanctions, despite the fact that the sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table but not to the brink of economic collapse? Even if we reimpose sanctions, other nations are so eager to do business with Iran that they won’t. Would the candidates use high technology to tear down Iran’s cyberwall and encourage anti-regime reformers to access social media and the Worldwide Web? Would they covertly or even overtly encourage regime change along the lines of the Arab Spring? Would they initiate cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs? Would they support Iran’s adversaries in the region?

The reality, deal or no deal, is that Iran is getting nuclear weapons sooner or later, probably before the next president finishes his (or her) term in office. If the next president can’t prevent Iran from getting the bomb, how will he deal with it?

ARAB ALLIES – We used to have Arab allies in the Middle East. But the Iran deal has given them second thoughts as they contemplate building or buying nuclear weapons of their own. How would the candidates prevent a nuclear arms race as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and the Gulf states try to match Iran’s program? Or would they help these countries develop nuclear programs to counter Iran’s?

ISRAEL – U.S.-Israeli relations are at an all-time low now and are likely to get even worse before Obama leaves office. If Iran’s supreme leader is true to his word, an Iranian attack or an Iranian proxy attack on Israel is a real possibility within the next few years. Would the candidates extend America’s nuclear umbrella to cover Israel?

ISLAMIC STATE – Obama’s promise to “degrade and destroy” ISIS has failed. His plan to train and arm a 3,000-man rebel Syrian army has so far resulted in a mere 60 recruits – some of whom were killed or captured last week. If a 30,000-man Iraqi army failed to stop ISIS in 2014, it’s hard to see how a handful of Syrian rebels will succeed in 2015.

Dreams of a joint Sunni Arab force to fight ISIS have also failed to materialize.

The fight against ISIS is now like a McDonald’s menu – everybody gets to order his own combo-meal. Every order comes with fries, like everybody’s fighting ISIS. But that’s where the similarity ends. The Turks are fighting ISIS along with us, but they’re also fighting our allies, the Kurds. Turkey wants Assad out of Syria, but Iran wants him in. The U.S.-trained Syrian rebels are fighting ISIS, but they really want to fight Assad, and we won’t let them. Except in southern Syria, where the CIA is supposedly training other rebels who are fighting Assad. Iran is fighting ISIS, but only with Shiite ground forces. Egypt is fighting ISIS, but only in the Sinai, and it worries that ISIS will control Syria if Assad falls. In other words, the fight against ISIS is a mess. As a general rule, if a policy is too complicated to explain, it’s probably too complicated to succeed.

What would the candidates do to stop ISIS? Send in U.S. ground forces? If so, how many? Who would they fight with and who would they fight against?

ISIS IN AMERICA – ISIS is really two threats: one to our allies and interests in the Middle East, and one to the U.S. homeland. Even if we managed to destroy ISIS in the Middle East, as long as a handful of social media-savvy jihadists remained, they could still recruit and launch lone-wolf attacks on Americans at home. What would the candidates do about the online ISIS threat? Where do they draw the line between privacy and security?

PUTIN – The Russian president is strutting across borders into Ukraine, rattling sabers on NATO borders and threatening nuclear war. Would the candidates try to roll him back in Ukraine? If so, how? Would they arm Ukraine? Would they, as a last resort, commit U.S. forces to that fight? Would they be willing to fight Russia if Putin pushes into NATO territory?

CHINA – China is stealing our weapon designs and pouring enormous resources into its military. It’s also building artificial islands in the South China Sea and claiming the large waterway between the mainland and the islands as an internal Chinese lake. It’s arming those islands with naval ports and airstrips. It’s also hacking into U.S. government and industrial computer systems and stealing classified information on millions of Americans.

So far the Obama administration has asked China, more or less politely, to stop. As Secretary Clinton has said, “You don’t pick a fight with your banker.” Predictably, the Chinese have only intensified their actions and escalated their rhetoric. What would the candidates do to stop Chinese expansion, data theft and industrial espionage? What if China doesn’t back down?

Peace Through Strength went far beyond rebuilding America’s military. President Reagan used all elements of our national power – economic, political, diplomatic and military – to turn America from a nation in decline to the world’s sole superpower. He set in motion the policies that ultimately defeated Communism and ended the Cold War – without firing a shot.

What are you going to do to defeat Islamic extremism, prevent Russian revanche and check Chinese expansionism … and create jobs, revive the economy and restore the American dream? It sounds like an impossibly tall order, but then again, no one said being president was going to be any easier than running for president. That’s why I’ve got my popcorn ready and my pizza deliveryman on speed dial. I can’t wait for Thursday’s debates.