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The GOP’s foreign affairs problem

Jeb Bush’s positioning will help shape the GOP candidates’ foreign policy debate.
Jeb Bush’s positioning will help shape the GOP candidates’ foreign policy debate. Getty Images

Most presidential campaigns focus mostly on domestic issues such as the economy, taxes and healthcare, not foreign policy. But the 2016 presidential campaign is already shaping up to be an exception.

For one thing, the world is a mess. The United States is at war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, even if we don’t have combat troops on the ground, and opportunities for new wars keep cropping up. President Obama hasn’t convinced most voters that his policies are working; in a Fox News poll released last week, a whopping 73 percent of respondents said they didn’t think Obama had a clear strategy in the fight against the terrorist Islamic State.

The likely Democratic candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will need to show how she would do better than the president she served as secretary of State. Her Republican challengers will want to reassert their party’s traditional advantage on national security, a phenomenon political scientists call “issue ownership.”

But Republicans haven’t quite worked out what their foreign policy ought to be, beyond “not Obama.”

That’s partly because it’s still early in the campaign and the GOP boasts a bumper crop of potential candidates, some of them governors who never needed a foreign policy until now.

It’s also because one probable GOP candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has already argued for a minimalist foreign policy with lower defense spending and fewer military commitments.

But the debate isn’t only about Paul. Ever since President George W. Bush’s long misadventure in Iraq, his Republican successors have been struggling to refashion conservative foreign policy in a way most voters would embrace.

Divisions have emerged over many issues but the crucial question in the campaign will probably be military intervention in the Middle East, the terrain on which the last Republican administration came to grief. If airstrikes alone aren’t enough to defeat Islamic State, should ground troops be deployed?

Three rough camps among potential Republican candidates can be discerned. There are interventionists, who want the United States to do more. There’s the lone anti-interventionist, Paul. And, in between, there’s a big group of straddlers who say they would be tougher than Obama but, when pressed, don’t offer much in the way of specifics.

It’s not unusual for a political party to divide over foreign policy – not even Republicans.

The last time isolationists battled internationalists for the soul of the GOP, it was a very different era – around 1950, at the end of the 20-year-long, five-term Democratic presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

This time, the debate isn’t over how to handle a world transformed by a war the United States and its allies won; it’s about the legacy of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and a war most people think we lost.

So the potential candidate in the most intriguing position is his brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida. He hasn’t spelled out his foreign policy yet, but he’s scheduled to give a speech on the subject Wednesday in Chicago. On national security, Jeb Bush is the candidate to watch.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Email him at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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