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Foreign Policy Is Becoming a Major 2016 Campaign Issue

Foreign policy may not be a leading issue with voters right now but if events continue to flare up around the world, bet on it being a hot topic of the 2016 presidential campaign. By Josh Kraushaar

Take a look at American public opinion on foreign policy, and it's clear that the American instinct is to avoid involvement in overseas conflicts.

A new CBS News poll, conducted last week, showed fewer than one-third of Americans believe the U.S. has a responsibility to "do something" about Russia and Ukraine, barely higher than the 26 percent of Americans who believed the U.S. should involve itself in Syria last September. Only 36 percent said the U.S. should take the lead in solving international conflicts—a far cry from the 48 percent plurality who agreed with the statement in April 2003, during the Iraq War.

The numbers are consistent with the tendency for Americans to be much more concerned with domestic issues than those abroad—at least until there's a crisis point. The growth of al-Qaida attracted little attention from voters during the Clinton administration until 9/11 happened. After that, terrorism and foreign policy landed at the top of the American priority list.

But pay closer attention to the changing rhetoric from the leading 2016 presidential contenders from both parties, and it's clear they're hedging their bets against the polls, anticipating the U.S. may well be headed into crisis mode. Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and even Rand Paul have all sounded a more hawkish tone in the last month as Russian aggression continues unabated in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the prospects for curtailing Iranian nuclear ambitions aren't looking promising, the civil war in Syria rages on, and Venezuela is awash in violence within our own hemisphere.

President Obama may be responding to public opinion by preferring diplomatic solutions and an international consensus over unilateral American actions, but his approval ratings on handling foreign policy have cratered, regardless. His 36 percent approval rating on foreign policy, according to the CBS News poll, is 7 points lower than his already-weak 43 percent overall approval rating. He receives low scores on his handling of the Ukraine crisis, and a plurality think the United States' image around the world has gotten worse since he became president.

That's what makes Hillary Clinton's recent comments about Russia and Iran so telling. At an American Jewish Congress dinner last week, Clinton expressed deep skepticism that Iran was really committed to rolling back its nuclear program, despite the ongoing negotiations. Earlier in the month, she compared Vladimir Putin's aggression in Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's territorial advances in the run-up to World War II, even though she led efforts as secretary of State to "reset" the strained relationship between the two countries.

These aren't the musings of a presidential candidate who believes that voters are satisfied with the president's approach to foreign policy. She's trying to create some space between her views and Obama's, but she's boxed in by being involved with his administration's foreign policy for four years. Indeed, her hawkish turn is all the more notable, given that her support of the Iraq War in 2003 led to her political demise five years later. The fact that she's once again positioning herself as a hawk is a sign she's concerned that voters may be looking for a tougher commander in chief come 2016—in stark contrast to the political environment of 2008.

Even more intriguing is the muscular positioning of Rand Paul, one of the Republican Party's leading voices against military intervention. At the outset of the crisis in Ukraine, the Kentucky senator sounded a sympathetic note toward Russia, arguing the U.S. should avoid antagonizing their rival. "Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don't think that is a good idea," he told TheWashington Post in February.

(Related: Marco Rubio’s Stumbling Start to Be the GOP’s National Security Candidate in 2016)

But after taking heat on foreign policy from his tea-party rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Paul's rhetoric changed markedly. He wrote a Time magazine op-ed, calling for the Obama administration to be more aggressive against Putin. "It is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia's latest aggression … and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation," he wrote. If it wasn't a total flip-flop, it was an acknowledgement that being seen as too soft on Russian aggression carries a cost with Republican primary voters.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has seen his stature rise as he's called for a more muscular foreign policy and critiqued the Obama administration's handling of events overseas. The senator from Florida wrote a Washington Post op-ed last week, headlined "Making Putin Pay," recommending steps the president could take to counter Russian aggression. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rubio was one of the few speakers to focus on foreign policy, calling for active American engagement across the world. His Senate floor rebuttal to Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa over Cuba's and Venezuela's dismal human-rights records became a YouTube sensation among conservative hawks. If foreign policy reemerges as an important issue, Rubio is better-positioned to capitalize than any of his prospective Republican challengers. 

Events can quickly overtake public opinion, as President George W. Bush quickly learned. The candidate who promised a humble foreign policy during the 2000 campaign ended up declaring in his 2004 inaugural speech that U.S. policy was to "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture."

Foreign policy may not register as a leading issue with voters right now, but if Russia continues to redraw Europe's borders, Iran successfully builds a nuclear weapon, and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist groups establish themselves in Syria and Libya, bet on it being a major theme of the 2016 presidential campaign. Prospective presidential candidates may not believe the worst is yet to come, but they're certainly preparing for that possibility.