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Where They Stand: On Foreign Policy, GOP Candidates Vary on Little but Tone

This primary season, NHPR is taking a closer look at some of the issues defining the presidential primary races through a series we’re calling Where They Stand. Today we’re looking at some of the top foreign policy questions in the Republican primary.

On this subject, while the candidates agree on most issues, there are still differences to be found.

Click "play" to begin the interactive explainer above.

After a few presidential elections dominated by the economy, foreign policy is making something of a comeback as a major campaign issue. That might be good news for Republicans, at least according to the conventional wisdom that they have the upper hand on this issue. And while that may or may not true, Republican presidential candidates have certainly shown no hesitation in bringing it up. Especially when it comes to their assessment of the current president. Here's just a sample:

Jeb Bush: "We can’t be part of the community of nations, we can’t lead from behind…”

Ted Cruz: “…we’re looking at this bizarre double-speak coming out of the White House where those words are never spoken…”

Donald Trump: “…somehow he just doesn’t have courage, there’s something missing from our president.”

Whether in their critiques of current American foreign policy or their prescriptions for the future of it, it’s clear that the majority of Republicans running for president share a world view: One where a feckless administration has hurt America’s standing abroad, and where a strong leader is needed.

But even if many of the Republicans are running a very similar foreign policy playbook, there are still differences. And they come in both policy substance and style.

Take the question of what to about ISIS. Republican candidates often cite the worsening security situation in Iraq and Syria as a failing of the Obama administration. And they all generally agree that a more aggressive policy is needed to confront this group of Islamic militants. Aspects of that policy that are common to virtually every candidate include the following: rally America’s Middle Eastern allies, directly arm Kurdish forces, and expand the role American military forces play in the conflict.

But it’s on that last point that candidates begin to diverge. Republicans show varying degrees of willingness to send American troops to directly confront ISIS. Perhaps mindful of the divisive politics that still haunt previous military interventions.

On one extreme is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who minces no words in calling for a return of American forces to the region.

“If you’re running for president of the United States, and you don’t understand that we need more American ground forces in Iraq and that America has to be part of a regional ground force that will go into Syria and destroy ISIL in Syria, then you’re not ready to be commander-in-chief.”

At the more dovish end of the spectrum is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, whose libertarian roots make him the only real outlier in the field. A point he was sure to highlight during the second Republican debate.

“If you want boots on the ground and you want them to be our sons and daughters, you got fourteen other choices. There will always be another Bush or Clinton for you, if you want to go back to war in Iraq. But the thing is the first war was a mistake and I’m not sending our sons and our daughters back to Iraq.”

On another marquee issue in foreign policy, the Iranian nuclear deal, Republicans are again unanimous in their judgement of the agreement as a bad one. But candidates vary in how far they are willing to go in their criticism of the deal. And for some, the word "bad’ just doesn’t do it justice.

Cruz has called it "nothing short of catastrophic." Mike Huckabee describes it as "a colossal disaster of epic proportions." For Trump, "never ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran. And I mean never.”

Several candidates also have strong words for what they would do with the agreement if elected. Here’s Cruz again: “You better believe it, if I am elected president, on the very first day in office, I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.”

But it’s here, when we come to the question of what to actually do with the deal that no-one likes that you see some daylight between candidates. While Cruz and Huckabee have promised to immediately cancel the agreement if elected, others including John Kasich have called that approach impractical. Here's Kasich:

“For people to say what they’re going to do 18 months from now, drawing red lines like we did in Syria, that doesn’t make any sense. I’m for seizing the high moral ground so that if they do cheat, we can bring our allies and slap those sanctions back on.”

Republican candidates are likely to return to foreign policy often this primary season. But it’s an issue that moves fast – with each new development prompting a new debate. And that means the subtle fault lines that exist right now within the Republican field may shift, disappear, or even come to define campaigns.

Sara has been a part of NHPR since 2011. Her work includes data visualizations, data journalism, original stories reported on the web, video, photos and illustrations. She is responsible for the station's visual style and print design, as well as the user experience of NHPR's digital platforms.
Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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