Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

In foreign policy, 'tough' is not a strategy, it's a pose


When Scott Walker was asked at the CPAC convention how he would handle the challenge posed by ISIS, the union-busting Wisconsin governor had an interesting response:

"I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists does not wash up on American soil. If I can take on 100,000 (union) protesters, I can do the same across the world." 

Not surprisingly, union members in Wisconsin took umbrage at being compared to terrorists who crucify, behead and burn their opponents alive. Even Walker seemed a bit confused about what he was trying to say. Asked later about the comparison, he explained that “That’s the closest thing I have in terms of handling a difficult situation, not that there’s any parallel between the two.”

No. Not that there's any parallel between the two.

Awkward though it was, Walker's comparison had an obvious motive. He's trying to sell himself as strong, tough, tenacious, even pugnacious. No mom jeans for this guy, no siree. That theme -- toughness toughness toughness -- has become the mantra of the entire GOP field on foreign policy, right down to Donald Trump promising the CPAC crowd that no one would be tougher on ISIS than a President Trump. I guess if you can fire Gary Busey, you can fire ISIS too.

In his own CPAC appearance, Marco Rubio extended the theme by also condemning the Obama approach to ISIS. He argued that instead, "they need to be defeated on the ground by a Sunni military force with air support from the United States.”

“Put together a coalition of armed regional governments to confront [ISIS] on the ground with U.S. special forces support, logistical support, intelligence support and the most devastating air support possible, and you will wipe ISIS out.”

The problem is, that pretty much describes the actual policy already put into place by Obama. I suppose the difference would be that while doing the exact same thing as the current president, Rubio would somehow be "tough" about it.

And that's both the appeal and the problem with "tough."  Toughness is a necessary trait in a leader, but at some point, those in leadership are asked to go beyond self-description and advocate action. What does "tough" mean in terms of actual policy?

If we're going to get "tough" on ISIS, are we going to re-insert tens of thousands of American troops into the Middle East and keep them there for years? Are we going to get "tough" on Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine, even if it means a land war in Europe? Are we going to get "tough" on Iran, even to the point of invading the country, occupying it, destroying its nuclear program and installing a more friendly regime that has absolutely no chance of support from the Iranian people?

These are the grounds of the 2016 foreign policy debate. "Tough" is a quality, a trait. It is neither a strategy nor a policy.  And as George W. Bush showed us, it is certainly no substitute for wisdom.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.