As the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker could be forgiven for knowing very little about foreign policy. But now the Tea Party Republican has White House ambitions. On Sunday, Martha Raddatz, a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent at ABC News, pressed Governor Walker to defend his qualifications in a prospective race where many of his GOP rivals will have more foreign affairs experience. "You talk about leadership and you talk about big, bold, fresh ideas," she said, dispensing with his boilerplate. "What is your big, bold, fresh idea in Syria?"
The question should've prompted an admission that many geopolitical problems are unavoidably thorny—that there often isn't a "big, bold, fresh idea" that would solve them.
Instead this exchange followed:
WALKER: Well, I think - I go back to the red line.
RADDATZ: Let's not go back. Let's go forward. What is your big, bold idea in Syria?
WALKER: I think aggressively, we need to take the fight to ISIS and any other radical Islamic terrorist in and around the world, because it's not a matter of when they attempt an attack on American soil, or not if I should say, it's when, and we need leadership that says clearly, not only amongst the United States but amongst our allies, that we're willing to take appropriate action. I think it should be surgical.
RADDATZ: You don't think 2,000 air strikes is taking it to ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
WALKER: I think we need to have an aggressive strategy anywhere around the world. I think it's a mistake to -
RADDATZ: But what does that mean? I don't know what aggressive strategy means. If we're bombing and we've done 2,000 air strikes, what does an aggressive strategy mean in foreign policy?
WALKER: I think anywhere and everywhere, we have to be - go beyond just aggressive air strikes. We have to look at other surgical methods. And ultimately, we have to be prepared to put boots on the ground if that's what it takes, because I think, you know--
RADDATZ: Boots on the ground in Syria? U.S. boots on the ground in Syria?
WALKER: I don't think that is an immediate plan, but I think anywhere in the world--
RADDATZ: But you would not rule that out.
WALKER: I wouldn't rule anything out. I think when you have the lives of Americans at stake and our freedom loving allies anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared to do things that don't allow those measures, those attacks, those abuses to come to our shores.
Let's look past the absurdity of suggesting that "be aggressive" is a "big, bold, fresh idea." Walker's answer suggests that while he positions himself as a Washington, D.C. outsider in domestic affairs, his foreign policy views are as Beltway as they come. Like John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and the establishment wings of their respective parties, he believes that the safety of Americans is directly proportional to our willingness to intervene militarily in Middle Eastern countries. He distinguishes himself only insofar as he avows that the degree of U.S. intervention in Syria should perhaps include "boots on the ground" at some future date.
Democrats have jumped on that distinction, knowing that the American public is averse to "boots on the ground" in Syria, but fail to acknowledge the fact that the Obama Administration long ago involved the CIA and its footwear in the civil war.
It is unclear if President Walker would be any more inclined than President Clinton to advocate for U.S. ground troops in Syria at some future date (the Republican Party coalition is more hawkish than its Democratic analog). Comparisons aside, if Governor Walker's remarks on foreign affairs remain as ill-considered and rhetorically weak as these no one should support his bid for higher office.
The idea that America should be prepared to put boots on the ground "anywhere and everywhere" that Islamist terrorists operate suggests a possibility of restarting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and invading Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Chechnya, Nigeria—I'll stop because it's clear that even Walker doesn't really subscribe to the standard he thoughtlessly put forth. His answer is discrediting because it betrays how little thought he has given these questions.
The position he actually holds is most likely that while it obviously won't make sense to put American boots on the ground in some places where Islamist terrorists operate, there are other countries where ground invasions shouldn't be ruled out, because "when you have the lives of Americans at stake and our freedom loving allies anywhere in the world, we have to be prepared to do things that don't allow those measures, those attacks, those abuses to come to our shores."
What he fails to grapple with are the consequences of following this logic in the recent past. The Bush Administration's decision to put boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately cost the lives of more Americans than the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And it isn't as if those wars eliminated terrorism from those countries. Iraq is more hospitable to Islamist terrorists today than it was before the war.
At the very best, it is extremely unclear that putting U.S. boots on the ground in Syria would make the U.S. homeland any safer. But it's obvious that it would put some Americans—the young men and women sent there—in far more peril of violent death. The fact that members of the military volunteered themselves to go in harm's way in our stead doesn't mean that they should be sent to be shot or blown up when the end result will very likely be many more U.S. lives lost than saved.
In 2008, President Obama won the White House partly because he made the case against a war that the country had come to view as a catastrophic mistake. His rival, Senator John McCain, continued to defend the Iraq invasion as the right choice.
Democrats won't enjoy that "right about Iraq" advantage if they nominate Hillary Clinton. But whatever the Democratic Party does, the Republican Party will be in a better position if its nominee shows awareness that Iraq was a mistake and can credibly demonstrate that he or she won't make a similar mistake. If Governor Walker sums up his foreign policy as "be aggressive" and "be more willing to put boots on the ground," one wonders how he would reassure voters that he'd perform better as Commander in Chief than George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld, a team with the same instincts and more experience, or Hillary Clinton, whose hawkishness on Syria is also to the right of the electorate.
There is one other foreign policy approach that Walker once articulated, though it doesn't inspire any confidence either. "To me, if you have a strong America led by a strong president who makes serious statements about what they mean not only on national security and foreign policy, but on all other issues, we're not going to be faced with many of these situations," he said, "because people will know if they're allies we can be counted on and if they're adversaries not to mess with us.”
As more attentive students of recent American history will recall, America's president from 2001 to 2009 stated that all countries on earth had to choose whether they would be "with us or against us" in a global War on Terrorism. Despite this strong statement, thorny foreign policy situations continued to arise! The idea that the right rhetoric will solve most of America's geopolitical problems is childish. It's as if Walker learned about foreign policy by watching The West Wing or reading Bill Kristol columns. As yet, his conservative fans seem unbothered by these glaring weaknesses. But if Walker doesn't formulate more credible views soon, he'll deserve to be laughed out of the 2016 primary like Herman Cain, who had foreign policy notions of similar sophistication. The biggest fans of Walker's domestic record should be most invested in this urgent project. But the GOP consensus on foreign policy remains sufficiently ill-considered that even thoughtless comments often go unchallenged within the party.
This shortcoming may well hand Election 2016 to Democrats.