Republican voters are divided when it comes to key foreign policy issues and the role of American power abroad. But listening to the party's potential 2016 presidential candidates at the weekend's Republican National Committee winter meeting in San Diego, you wouldn't have known it. Not only was foreign policy front and center of every address, but the contenders were all convening around a hawkish, almost neoconservative position similar to where Mitt Romney was when he ran in 2012.
One after the other, the candidates decried the foreign policy of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocating for a more muscular, assertive posture that would place America back in the center of the world's leading crises.
Romney himself devoted roughly half of his 10-minute speech on Friday to calling for a new foreign policy approach that includes more use of American military, diplomatic and economic power around the world. As if to drive home the point, his speech was aboard the USS Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier.
"The world is not safer six years after Barack Obama has been in office, there's no question about that," he said. "The foreign policy was one that was crafted by he and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their foreign policy was based on the premise that if we were friendly enough to other people and if we smile broadly enough and press the reset button, then peace is going to break out around the world … And the results of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama foreign policy have been devastating and you know that."
Romney criticized Obama for not following through on his "red line" threat to attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the regime used chemical weapons en masse against its own people. He criticized the administration for "leading from behind" in Libya and leaving a mess there. He said Obama mistreats allies such as Israel.
"This has not been a good time for American foreign policy," Romney said. "So in my view, to make the world safer for Americans and for good people all over the world and to make the world safe for freedom, our party must stand for making the world safer and our principles will do that."
Earlier that day, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry railed against what he called the Obama-Clinton foreign policy as weak and ineffective, criticizing everything from the trade of five Taliban commanders for U.S. sergeant Bowe Bergdahl to the President's withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. He blamed Obama and Clinton for the human tragedy in Syria and the rise of Islamic State.
"We saw ISIS terrorists in American tanks using American weaponry taking cities secured through the sacrifice of American blood. This happened because of the president's inaction in Syria," Perry claimed. "He allowed opposition forces to become radicalized. They grew in strength and number and eventually crossed into Iraq."
Like Romney, Perry called out Obama for not attacking Syria in 2013: "Assad crossed that line without consequence, meaning that a dictator remains in power due to this president."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ben Carson, the conservative author and former neurosurgeon, took similar approaches, and all the speakers were rewarded with cheers and applause from the RNC crowd when they took the Obama-Clinton foreign policy "weakness" to task.
The candidates' tough talk doesn't necessarily jive with where most Republican primary voters are on the use of the American military abroad, especially in the Middle East.
Only 53 percent of Republicans support using U.S. ground troops in Iraq to fight the Islamic State, according to a Brookings poll released earlier this month, while 46 percent oppose it. Nearly a third of Republicans believe the U.S. should stay out of the war against the Islamic State altogether. And while 72 percent of Republicans are convinced that in order to solve the Syria crisis, Assad must go, an equal 72 percent of Republicans believe that the U.S. military should not fight against the Assad regime.
Nevertheless, as they prepare to hit the campaign trail, even those Republicans who have tried to distance themselves from militaristic policies in the past are looking to the hawkish experts inside their own party for guidance.
Senator Ted Cruz told me in an interview late last year at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada that he was staking out a foreign policy position that sought to balance between the hawkishness of some party leaders such as John McCain and the more isolationist tendencies of others such as Rand Paul. "There are a range of views within the Republican party but there is an overwhelming consensus that the Obama-Clinton foreign policy is a manifest disaster, that leading from behind does not work," he said.
Cruz said he agreed with McCain on the need to increase pressure on Iran but agreed with Paul on his opposition to striking the Assad regime after it used chemical weapons. He is against long-term military interventions overseas and is opposed to nation-building abroad.
When asked whom he trusts for advice on foreign policy, Cruz named two hawkish conservatives, Ambassador John Bolton and former White House official Elliot Abrams, and one hawkish Democrat, former CIA Director James Woolsey.
"I believe the central touchstone for U.S. foreign policy should be defending the vital national security interests of the United States," he said. "The common thread, the most central failing of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy has been a failure to focus on and defense the national security interests of the United States."
Even Rand Paul has been trying to deny his isolationist roots and reframe his foreign policy views as "realist." He has been consulting with foreign policy experts from the uber- realist Center for the National Interest and reversing course on previous views that could be seen as not supportive of the State of Israel.
Some Republican political experts say that it's natural for potential candidates to stake out a hawkish foreign policy position in a presidential election; there's little advantage of running to the left of a Democrat nominee and the party always coalesces around its more hawkish wing when the commander in chief job in on the line. "If you are conservative, you believe Obama is weak and you have to be strong. I think that's where Republican primary voters certainly are," said Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol.
The strategy of attacking Obama's foreign policy as failing and weak largely worked in 2012. Romney, a candidate with no foreign policy experience, narrowed his gap against a sitting president on foreign policy significantly. But in 2016, Obama won't be on the ballot, and Clinton is already working hard to distance herself from the perceived failures of the team she was a part of.
"Clinton is probably obsessing too much about distancing herself from Obama, and the Republicans are probably obsessing too much about tying her to Obama," said Kristol. "There has to be more focus on what are you going to do. It's going to be more forward-looking than backward-looking, ultimately."
Running to the right for GOP presidential candidates makes sense for the primary. Rand Paul will corner the market for Republican isolationists, who will still be a distinct minority within the party. But in the general election, the nominee will have to decide what being more hawkish than Clinton would really mean, and how conservative a foreign policy the country is really asking for.Josh Rogin