ATLANTA — The Republican outsiders have been getting a pass on their limited grasp of foreign policy in the presidential campaign. That may be ending.
Republicans favored Donald Trump even after he acknowledged not knowing the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah. And they didn’t fret over Ben Carson’s mistaken belief that the Chinese are involved in the Syrian conflict.
Yet Friday’s brutal attack in Paris sparked an urgent focus on national security that will test the appeal of the outsiders like nothing they’ve faced so far. Their lack of governing experience — an asset for much of the year as people rebelled against the establishment — now represents a question mark for Americans suddenly anxious about the nation’s security and the prospect of another war.
“This is real life, a real crisis situation, and it reminds people of the importance of having a serious person as commander in chief,” said Dan Senor, a foreign policy adviser for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and unaligned in 2016. “In a race where there are some serious candidates and some less-than-serious candidates, one would think that a distinction would be made.”
Senor declined to name the “less-than-serious” candidates, but the inference was clear.
Trump, a real estate mogul-turned reality television star, has talked tough on foreign policy but struggled at times to demonstrate fluency on international issues. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, is still getting up to speed on the world’s many conflicts. When repeatedly pressed in a weekend Fox News interview to name an ally he’d contact to combat the Islamic State group, he said he’d call “all of the Arab states.”
Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett said the campaign was looking to add foreign policy advisers, even before the Paris attack that left at least 129 people dead. Carson had a three-hour lunch last week with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for example.
Bennett says Carson is hardly alone in his lack of foreign policy experience.
“Who has experience on the international stage?” he asked of the 2016 Republican field. “There is nobody. Jeb Bush doesn’t have any. Ben Carson’s been to more countries than Marco Rubio.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Air Force veteran, has made national security the primary focus of his campaign. The rest of the GOP field, however, has limited experience with foreign affairs.
Bush is among a half dozen governors or former governors in the contest who led their states’ National Guard apparatus and sometimes traveled abroad for trade missions. Among the four senators in the race, Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul often examine complicated international issues as members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while Graham and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz focus on military issues on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Trump has repeatedly refused to answer direct questions about who’s been advising him, other than mentioning 79-year-old business magnate Carl Icahn. In August, he suggested he gets foreign policy advice from watching television.
“I have a good team and I have a team also that’s forming,” Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt in November without naming names.
Yet Trump has made an aggressive foreign policy a central part of his platform.
He’s long vowed to make the country’s military so strong “that nobody will mess with us.” He’s also focused on choking off money to Islamic State militants by calling for “bombing the hell out of” the oil fields they control.
Such policy prescriptions don’t necessarily show preparation for being commander in chief, said John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations under Republican President George W. Bush.
“The first job of the president is to keep our country safe,” Bolton said. “The candidates have to show they can think this through. Just throwing out tactics doesn’t show that you’re qualified to be anything more than a second lieutenant.”
There was little sign of concern about the outsiders’ inexperience at a Trump rally Monday night in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“People out there understand that a Ben Carson or a Donald Trump is far more superior, intelligence-wise, than any politician out there,” said Terry Armstrong, who owns a convenience and pizza delivery store.
Now, some of the more experienced candidates are working to promote their foreign policy chops.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who served on the House Armed Services Committee for nearly two decades while in Congress, is scheduled to outline his national security strategy on Tuesday in Washington. Bush will address U.S. military needs in light of the Paris attacks in an address Wednesday at The Citadel military college in South Carolina.
Bush, who had previously deflected questions about how many U.S. troops would be needed to defeat the Islamic State group, remained unwilling to offer a ballpark figure on Monday. Spokesman Tim Miller said the former Florida governor doesn’t have a national security adviser or access to intelligence reports that would inform such a decision.
That didn’t stop Trump, who has been reticent about putting more troops in harm’s way, from declaring Monday that he would support devoting 10,000 troops to the effort.