Potential GOP 2016 candidates stake out foreign policy ground

Senator Rand Paul speaks at a session titled "The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy" during the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington December 2, 2014.

REUTERS

Foreign policy is rarely at the top of voters' minds when they head to their polling places.

Yet this year, as prospective 2016 candidates for the Republican Party consider entering the race, foreign policy may seem like one of the more compelling cases they could make for a change in leadership. As the economy slowly turns around and the problems with Obamacare are alleviated, criticism of the Obama administration has focused on issues like the emergence of ISIS and Russian President Vladimir Putin's unsettling aggression.

On top of that, President Obama's foreign policy record is inextricably linked to the presumed Democratic presidential nominee; his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton's "sole qualification" for the White House is in the area of foreign policy, Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told CBS News. "I think it is reasonable to assume foreign policy is going to play a big role in this election," she said.

Matching up against Clinton may have been on the minds of New Jersey Gov. Christie, Sen. Rand Paul, and Sen. Ted Cruz as they took steps this week to flesh out their foreign policy positions and expertise.

Even if Clinton weren't the likely Democratic nominee, establishing some foreign policy credentials would be critical for any presidential nominee.

"People say foreign policy doesn't really matter in presidential elections, and that is true to some extent when it comes to the specifics," Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense and ambassador, said to CBS News. Edelman was an adviser to Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign. "But I think also voters have a kind of general commander in chief test," he said.

While state leaders like Christie are clearly more experienced in the domestic arena, many modern governors can claim experience in areas like international trade. Many governors also have National Guard units from their states deployed overseas.

Christie on Thursday embarked on a two-day trip to Canada, where he focused on the issues of energy and trade, while also touting his national security credentials. In a speech at the Calgary Petroleum Club, Christie noted that he was appointed as U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey on Sept. 10, 2001. One of the planes hijacked the following day left from Newark, giving Christie his "first test as the chief law enforcement officer" for the federal government in the state.

Christie also used the speech to once again endorse the construction of the XL Keystone pipeline, the controversial project that would link the tar sands fields of northern Alberta to oil refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The project has "languished" for six years, the governor said, lamenting the missed energy and broader economic opportunities.

"We need to adopt a get-it-done philosophy," Christie said, speaking about the government in general. "The single biggest frustration American citizens have with their government is that they're not getting things done."

Christie met with Alberta Premier Jim Prentice on Thursday, and on Friday he meets with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

While Christie may have no problem building up his diplomatic record, establishing a set of guiding foreign policy principles can be more of a challenge for presidential candidates, Pletka said.

"It's not that hard to learn the facts -- it's really hard to learn what you believe," she said.

No prospective 2016 candidate has done that as well as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, Pletka said -- noting that she disagrees with most of his views.

"The one thing he knows is he hates government, that he's a libertarian," she said. "The challenge for the other players -- and this goes for Democrats as well -- is explaining how the foreign policy challenges of today fit in with your world view and your sense of the role America should play in the world."

The libertarian-leaning wing of the GOP gained more credibility in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but conservatives say that the turmoil of the past year has once again united most of the GOP around the Reagan philosophy of achieving "peace through strength."

"It seems to me that Sen. Paul has been out there pretty much on a limb by himself -- and that he has tried to inch his way back to the tree trunk," Eliot Cohen, a former State and Defense department official who advised the Romney campaign, told CBS News.

"The Republicans have always had a more or less isolationist wing, and [Paul] early on made himself the spokesman for that sentiment," Cohen said. "But the dominant strain in the party has been conservative internationalist, and that's pretty much where all the rest are, as far as I can see."

At an event in Washington on Tuesday, Paul insisted that his belief in limited intervention is easily over-simplified.

"I absolutely support the concept of peace through strength," Paul said. He added that he has drafted a budget plan that would increase the Defense Department budget -- as long as other areas of government spending were cut.

"What separates me" from other conservatives, Paul said, is that "I am not all in" when it comes to Defense spending. "There are conservatives who say, 'I'll spend anything, and I don't care if it bankrupts the world'... [but] you will be a weaker country. The number one threat to our national security is our debt."

On Thursday, Paul introduced legislation in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that would formally authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The legislation would also repeal the 2001 and 2002 congressional authorizations that have been used to justify the fight against al Qaeda. Paul threatened to attach his bill to unrelated legislation, but he pulled the bill after the committee promised to hold a separate hearing on it next week.

Paul has taken heat from libertarians over his conditional and limited support for the use of ground forces in the Middle East. Earlier in the year, the senator chided others in the GOP for suggesting the U.S. should be more involved there. Whether or not to put "boots on the ground" in the fight against ISIS may be one of the hardest foreign policy questions for politicians to answer, Edelman said.

"Given the feelings that have grown over time over whether the wars in Iraq and afghanistan were worth the trouble," he said, "that's an area that will take a little bit of thought and a little bit of political adroitness to deal with."

At a foreign policy event Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, didn't shy away from the matter.

"If the objective were 'defeat ISIS,' if the objective were 'defend U.S. national security,' we would have a serious, concerted, real bombing campaign, not a photo-op campaign," Cruz reportedly said. "We would be using the boots on the ground or the Peshmerga to hunt down and kill the leadership of ISIS."

Pletka suggested that Cruz may be trying to cast himself as "sort of the responsible libertarian that Rand Paul isn't."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, one of the most hawkish potential 2016 candidates, suggested in September that Cruz and Paul are following his lead when it comes to the fight against ISIS.

"Now since my earliest days in the Senate and certainly with regards to ISIL for weeks now, I've been arguing that if we don't deal with them now, we are going to have to deal with them later anyways. And it's going to be harder to deal with them," he said on CBS' Face the Nation. "So the fact that there are now more voices actually echoing that, albeit weeks later, I think it's a positive development and certainly an example of how reality has set in when it becomes to foreign policy and our national security."

Clinton, meanwhile, has said she backs President Obama's strategy against ISIS but has suggested that ISIS' rise was aided in part by a failure to arm the moderate Syrian opposition earlier during the country's civil war.