Why It May Not Matter What 2016 Republicans Are Saying About Foreign Policy

History has a tendency to detour presidents away from their campaign pledges on foreign policy.

Hundreds of Cubans and visitors from other countries gather across the street from the newly reopened U.S. Embassy to observe the flag-raising ceremony August 14, 2015 in Havana, Cuba.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Ripping up the Iran deal is a powerful statement,” cried Texas Senator Ted Cruz to conservatives in Atlanta last weekend. “If you vote for Hillary [Clinton], you are voting for Iran to have nuclear weapons.”

Every top Republican presidential candidate vows to roll back the Iran nuclear deal if elected. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban refugees, promises to shut down the new U.S. embassy in Cuba. This week, Jeb Bush floated more U.S. ground troops in the Middle East to fight the Islamic State terrorist group, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he's open to a full-blown re-invasion of Iraq.

On Friday Rubio will speak at the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York to discuss Iran and Cuba while Secretary of State John Kerry visits Havana to open the American embassy. “President Obama has made no such effort to stand on the side of freedom,” Rubio will say, according to excerpts his campaign provided. “He has been quick to deal with the oppressors, but slow to deal with the oppressed. And his excuses are paper-thin.”

Take it all with a tablespoon of salt.

Foreign policy veterans caution that while presidential candidates may be sincere in the vows they make on the campaign trail, history shows that circumstances have a way of taking occupants of the Oval Office into directions they never anticipated.

“I don't put too much stock into anything a candidate says on foreign policy at this stage,” said Richard LeBaron, an expert with the Atlantic Council who served as ambassador to Kuwait under President George W. Bush. “Part of it is just an attempt to distinguish themselves from their rivals. Some of it is to look stronger or tougher than the other guy. And a lot of it will go by the wayside when you're elected, because after you're elected the world becomes a much more complex place and a lot less prone to simplistic solutions that you hear in campaigns.”

Rhetoric versus reality

History indicates that foreign policy rhetoric in campaigns often doesn't match what presidents do in office. In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on a non-interventionist foreign policy before launching two long-term wars in the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks. In 1992, Bill Clinton lambasted the “butchers of Beijing“ before normalizing relations with China and, facing pressure from American businesses, paving the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization despite its human rights practices.

Foreign policy experts say that the 2016 crop of Republican candidates trying to draw a contrast with President Barack Obama may also find their promises clashing with complicated realities if one of them makes it to the White House. The 17 Republican contenders are courting a conservative base that is hungry for a more militaristic and confrontational foreign policy. (The Democrats, by contrast, are making modest pledges that hew to Obama's vision, which front-runner Clinton directed as his first term as secretary of state.)

'Pretty unrealistic' to undo Iran deal

The Iran nuclear deal has produced a festival of red meat for Republicans on the campaign trail. “A horrific deal,” inveighed Jeb Bush. "“The deal could go away on the day President Obama leaves office,” said Rubio. “I will terminate the deal with Iran on my very first day,” Walker promised

The reality is less simple, cautioned LeBaron.

“Anybody who makes that promise now will have to face a more complex situation once they take office,” he said. “It will be very difficult to roll back.”

If Iran cooperates, scuttling the deal would backfire, LeBaron added. Moreover, global sanctions on Iran are unlikely to return if a new American president backs out. Other countries—Russia, China, and European nations—“are going to stick with the deal” and trade with Iran, said Carla Anne Robbins, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We end up isolating ourselves if we [back out], not the Iranians.”

Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, said it's “pretty unrealistic” to propose to re-impose international sanctions on Iran.

Another military escalation in Iraq?

When it comes to the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS, Republicans have roundly portrayed Obama's strategy as a failure—“a halting, ineffective effort,” charged Bush, which “has only emboldened these terrorists, leaving the pandemic unchecked.” As a solution, he proposes more aggressive engagement, including U.S. ground forces to assist the Iraqis. But that's a risky proposition for a President Jeb Bush: it's unclear the U.S. public support sending combat troops back into a war it views as a failure. If he did, it would make him the third consecutive President Bush to send Americans troops to fight in Iraq.

A favorite Republican complaint against Obama is that he tends not to use the phrase “radical Islam.” This, they say, is proof that he doesn't understand the enemy. Earlier this year, Walker told a conservative crowd, “We need a leader in America who stands up and realizes that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat to our way of life.” But here, too, governing is less simple than pleasing the base. George W. Bush's former foreign policy hand Elliott Abrams told Eli Lake of Bloomberg View that Obama's Republican predecessor also tiptoed around the phrase “radical Islam,” preferring to call Islamic militants “evildoers” and “extremists” to avoid the dangerous impression that the U.S. was waging war on a faith with more than 1 billion adherents.

'Unsettled and unsophisticated'

Then there's Cuba. The next president would likely have the power to shut down the embassy, and Rubio told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday that he would. On Friday, he'll say the Obama administration “has placed politics before policy, adversaries before allies, and legacy before leadership; the way it has confused weakness for restraint, concession for compromise, and—most simply of all—wrong for right.”

But a growing majority of the U.S. supports Obama's moves to reopen diplomatic relations, and by January 2017 there will be constituencies in the U.S. (and Cuba) invested in normalization. “Eventually with time there will be economic and political and family interests that like having more contact and openness,” said Robbins. Disrupting that would come with a “huge cost” to relations with Latin America, she said. “It would make the United States look unsettled and unsophisticated and perhaps not very reliable diplomatically.”

None of this is to say foreign policy rhetoric is without any meaning. O'Hanlon said that presidents “usually try to do part of what they promise, though sometimes it's not realistic to do all of it.” Historically, he said, [Reagan did build up military. Obama did reach out to extremist states. Clinton did try to focus on the economy.”

Robbins said candidates' foreign policy promises matter to the extent that journalists and others hold presidents accountable once they're elected. It doesn't always work. “That's what politicians do during campaigns—they pander,” she said. “And once confronted with diplomatic and other realities they turn their sails.”

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