When Republicans criticize Barack Obama’s foreign policy, their critiques usually break down into two broad themes: America’s enemies no longer fear us, and America’s allies no longer trust us. The part about our enemies fearing us is usually a reference to Russia – conservatives believe quite earnestly that Russia’s military expansionism over the last few years is a consequence of Vladimir Putin sizing up the president and determining that he’s a weakling. No less an authority than Peggy Noonan made this very argument just last Friday, lamenting “a Russian president who took the American’s measure and made a move, upsetting a hard-built order that had maintained for a quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union—what a mess.”
As for our allies, the claim that they can no longer trust us is typically a reference to Israel and the ongoing spat between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran policy and the two-state solution with the Palestinians. Republicans and conservatives aren’t shy about their preference for Netanyahu’s foreign policy vision and even do kooky things like invite him to speak before Congress while he’s in the final stages of a tough reelection fight.
But regardless of whom they’re referring to, Republicans are clear on one point: Because of Obama, America’s friends across the world just can’t take us at our word anymore. And the GOP candidates for 2016 have a plan for how to fix that: On their first day as president, they’ll break our word to our allies.
I’m referring, of course, to the multilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, in which the United States is partnered with France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China. Even before the outline of the agreement was unveiled last week, Republicans with ambitions for the White House promised that they would withdraw from whatever arrangement the allied world powers came to with Iran, and that they would do so on literally their first day as president. Assuming that a deal does come together, it will be the product of decades of international pressure and many long months of delicate negotiating. Everyone from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz to Scott Walker has said they’ll obliterate all that work in less than a day.
I want to focus on Walker here, since he’s been a bit stumbly on foreign policy, and also because he’s gone further than anyone else in attacking the deal. As Greg Sargent noted at the Washington Post, after the framework was released last week Walker renewed his promise to scuttle the deal as president, and was asked by a radio host if he’d still go through with it even if it meant that our trading partners would abandon the international sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. His answer? Yes, of course:
WALKER: Absolutely. If I ultimately choose to run, and if I’m honored to be elected by the people of this country, I will pull back on that on January 20, 2017, because the last thing — not just for the region but for this world — we need is a nuclear-armed Iran. It leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…
That’s about as vacant a response as you can offer, and it makes clear that Walker’s grasp of the issue doesn’t extend too far beyond “Iran is bad.” If an agreement is reached and President Walker does back out of it, then all he’ll have done is make it more likely that Iran obtains a nuclear weapon. He’s already acknowledged that whatever sanctions might be imposed will lack the backing of the international community, which he’ll have alienated with his unilateral action to demolish the diplomatic framework in place. So, as Jim Newell points out, that would leave Walker with two options: pray that nothing bad happens until the Iranian regime collapses, or drop a bunch of bombs.
Would dropping those bombs deprive Iran of a nuke? Well, John Bolton – who places more faith than anyone in the power of bombs to solve problems – says that an enthusiastic application of explosives to Iranian nuclear sites could set the program back a whopping three to five years. The framework under discussion would freeze things in place for at least 10 years. So we’d be putting Americans in harm’s way and pissing off all our friends, all for less than what we’d get than if we stick to our commitments.
But that’s the big plan for renewing the world’s trust in America and getting our enemies to fear us again. On day one of the next Republican administration, we’ll start behaving like erratic and irresponsible fools who renege on our obligations and pursue policies that tip us towards yet another protracted war in the Middle East. And all this will get the world believing in American exceptionalism again.