Back in the days of the Cold War when foreign diplomacy was relatively cut-and-dried, politicians had the luxury of being hawks or doves. Today, the world is painfully complex, and simple avian analogies no longer apply.
This is reflected by the varied stands of the Republican presidential candidates, as was clear during Tuesday night's debate. Republicans are expected to be hawks through tradition, but in a post Iraq-War world they need to assume dove-like caution without appearing dovish. It's tricky business.
Vladimir Putin offers a fine example of this dilemma. While none of the crop of Republican candidates appears to have the man-crush on the Russian dictator that afflicted past presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, they can get caught between admiring his bare-chested toughness and deploring his Commie authoritarianism. Remember Ukraine?
The world remains a simple place for Donald Trump, who said Tuesday he was 100 percent in favor of Mr. Putin dropping bombs on ISIS so the US doesn't have to. What is bad for ISIS, however, is generally good for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Putin's pal and fellow dictator. Jeb Bush called out Mr. Trump for his simplistic viewpoint on Syria, comparing it to "a board game, that's like playing Monopoly or something." (Risk would have been a better analogy than Monopoly but maybe that war game wasn't played in the Bush compound.)
Jeb Bush used to be a hawk, but he won't get elected trying to outhawk his brother, former President George W. Bush. Former President George H.W. Bush, a foreign policy realist, is now in the news for cuffing around Iraq War co-conspirators Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for their arrogance and folly in his memoir. If Jeb Bush is now following his Dad's lead on foreign affairs he is doing his floundering campaign a favor.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was described as "committed isolationist" Tuesday by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, which is simplistic. Senator Paul, like his fellow candidates, has some oddball ideas when it comes to domestic issues but his foreign policy is based primarily on challenging the bloated Pentagon war machine. That earns him ridicule from the party's McCain wing, which regards even cautious criticism of Pentagon spending as a sign of weakness, but that stance should earn him support among Americans. The Kentuckian's poll numbers, however, may consign him to the children's table at the next GOP debate.
Amusingly, Texas Senator Ted Cruz interjected himself into the Rubio-Paul fracas as the voice of reason, seeking "a middle ground that brings both of these together." Senator Cruz is many things but a reasonable, compromising voice is not one of them, based on his divisive and highly partisan antics in his short time in the Senate.
President Obama, courtesy of the practical experience none of the Republican candidates possess, knows all about the complexities of foreign policy. He has made mistakes, such as his declared red line in the sand should Syria employ chemical weapons against civilians. After eight years he will not have managed to extricate the US from the mess that is Afghanistan.
The president does, however, possess a sense of humility in the face of the maddening difficulties of foreign affairs, particularly in the Middle East, that most of the Republican candidates, most notably Mr. Trump, do not possess. It's a humility that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, hawkish as a New York senator, assuredly gained as secretary of state.
That humility, combined with realism about what America can and should do, is likely to at least prevent engagements in the adventurism abroad that makes bad situations much worse. Simplistic solutions, jingoism, tough talk and ill-considered actions are a recipe for disastrous failure. We know this from painful experience and there is no need to go down that road again, ever.