Candidates on Nonproliferation

These are two of my most recent posts for GMU Biodefense’s Pandora Report. I’m looking into what the 2016 presidential candidates have said about proliferation, biological weapons, health security issues, and the like. The first two focus on Republican candidates, with a forthcoming third installment for the Democrats.


I initially set out to write this as a candidate-by-candidate look at what the 2016 crop had to say about an issue near and dear to Biodefense students’ hearts: nonproliferation. As it turns out, though, not many candidates have well-developed stances on highly specific policy issues (or any issues, depending on how serious a candidate we’re talking about) more than a year from the general election. Lucky for us though, there’s been a major nonproliferation news event to drive the foreign policy debate: the Iran nuclear deal. So this is a rundown of what’s been said and being said about nonproliferation and WMD policy in the 2016 election.

So over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to take a look at what the 2016 election looks like for nonproliferation. I’m learning a lot about the way candidate’s structure their websites. And no, I don’t want to donate.

I’ll start first with the Republicans. There are 15 of them right now (plus a handful of fringe/joke candidates). Some of them have extensive platforms, others don’t. Most of them don’t have much to say about nonproliferation. Fair. But the Republican Party is unified, though, in its stern opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, as evidenced by the recent attempt to block the deal in Congress. What the candidates think about nonproliferation is also likely a function of the faith they place in the UN and international institutions. Those who trust those mechanisms will probably push treaties as the best counterproliferation tool. Those who don’t will probably call for strong deterrence.

Marco Rubio:

Marco Rubio lumps defense and foreign policy together in this video staged to look like an interview, where he says that he aims not to make America popular, but safe, and pledges to rebuild the military. He doesn’t talk about deterrence or proliferation in that video, but he does devote two entire sections of his “Issues” page to the Iran deal, and he alludes to nuclear proliferation in his hour-long talk at the Council on Foreign Relations (helpfully, the website provided a transcript): “The president’s proposed deal with Tehran will likely lead to a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and could force Israel to take bold action to defend itself, making war with Iran even more likely.” This interesting statement links the Iran deal with going to war with Iran (backing up Israel in an all-out war is a foregone conclusion, it seems). Huh.

It’s safe to say Marco Rubio is anti-Iran deal, but right now he hasn’t spoken extensively about nonproliferation efforts beyond advocating for American strength in the international community.

Jeb Bush:

Thanks to some name association, Jeb Bush tends to get asked about the Iraq War frequently. The war did have quite a lot to do with nonproliferation, given the controversy (at the time) of whether or not Saddam Hussein possessed or was attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. Jeb has praised his brother’s actions (although he’s said that “knowing what we know now,” he would not have gone into Iraq). Jeb is still thinking about Iraq, because his defense issues section is titled “Defeating ISIS.” Fair enough; that’s pretty direct and avoids Marco Rubio’s blog-like setup that made me comb through three different pages. (I think the content of the page was cobbled together from a few different sources because it switches back and forth between “ISIS” and “Islamic State,” and if you’ve read me before you’ll know that’s fascinating to me.) On this issue page, Jeb links the Iran nuclear deal with Iran’s support for Assad and Hezbollah, and more or less explicitly promises to dismantle the deal, if elected. He doesn’t have much else to say about nonproliferation.

Ted Cruz:

Ted Cruz’s website offers “proven record” sections instead of “issues” pages. While they’re mostly bullet points on things he’s said in the past, it’s not a recycled speech so that’s nice. Among the ways Cruz plans to create a “stronger, safer America,” Cruz specifically notes his opposition to the Iran deal. Cruz also links ending sanctions with locking in military action as the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and calls on all of the candidates to promise to repudiate the deal. So far, that’s not a controversial stance among Republicans. He’s also agreed that the Iraq War was a “mistake.” Cruz has little else to say about nonproliferation, but he’s taken a stance on another interesting biodefense issue: He authored legislation to give military service members deployed to provide aid during the 2014 Ebola outbreak the same tax benefits that service members in combat zones receive. So far, both the House and Senate versions of this bill have only been referred to their respective committees, but it’s an interesting point that hasn’t seen too much discussion.


So I’m continuing to take a look at what the 2016 election looks like for nonproliferation.

As with the previous post, Republicans in general tend to oppose the Iran deal, but let’s take a closer look at some more candidates, and move a little more toward the fringes.

Rand Paul:
Rand Paul opposes the Iran deal (surprise), and the section of his website devoted to Iran echoes Bibi Netanyahu’s “bad deal” language. Let me tell you though, as far as issues pages go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Not only does he have the most extensive set of issues pages I’ve seen so far, Rand’s camp has helpfully noted specific quotes, sources, and bill numbers for his voting record. I don’t even have to go on THOMAS. Thanks, Rand site devs! For example, the site notes that he was a co-sponsor of The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which attempted to challenge the administration’s negotiations. Rand didn’t always used to be this way, though. Having gradually (and recently, not-so-gradually) drifted from a libertarian stance into one more in line with mainstream conservative thinking, he’s changed his tune a bit on Iran. Bloomberg chronicles his shift from cautioning against military action and arguing that Iran didn’t pose a threat, in 2007, to his current position. Rand doesn’t have much else to say about nonproliferation. He doessay that Republican hawkishness contributed to the rise of ISIS, though, which caused him to get into a fight with Sean Hannity.

Carly Fiorina:
If Rand Paul has a great website, then Carly Fiorina has theworst one yet. Her issues page isn’t accessible from the home page, and when you do find it, it’s all videos. Carly uses some of these videos to underscore just how anti-Iran deal she is. During the September debate, she said that if elected president, “I will make two phone calls, the first to my good friend to Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him we will stand with the state of Israel. The second, to the supreme leader, to tell him that unless and until he opens every military and every nuclear facility to real anytime, anywhere inspections by our people, not his, we, the United States of America, will make it as difficult as possible and move money around the global financial system.” So far, she hasn’t had much to say about nonproliferation or biological weapons beyond the Iran deal. Like Donald Trump, she’s compared the negotiating diplomatic deals to business deals, citing her experience as CEO of computer giant Hewlett-Packard. There’s a catch there, though, and it’s one worth reading about in full other than my snarky at-a-glance version: according to Bloomberg View, while she was CEO, “Hewlett-Packard used a European subsidiary and a Middle East distributor to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of printers and other computer equipment to Iran,” circumventing the sanctions regime. While likely not illegal, it’s certainly been controversial.

Ben Carson:
Ben Carson’s security platform is centered on countering “Russian transgressions” and supporting Israel. The Russia issues page features pictures of scary missiles but doesn’t explicitly mention nuclear policies. Carson argues that Russian aggression has a destabilizing effect on Ukraine and the Middle East, ultimately threatening Europe. He calls on the US to lead NATO and non-NATO allies “from a position of strength” and that “all options should remain on the table” when dealing with Putin. No specific mention of nuclear weapons, but “all” is pretty broad. On Israel, he promises unwavering support, but offers no details to this end. To most conservative voters though, this can be read as anti-Iran deal, at least. Carson offered another interesting claim about nonproliferation, though. In the August debate, Carson said, “You know, Ukraine was a nuclear-armed state. They gave away their nuclear arms with the understanding that we would protect them. We won’t even give them offensive weapons.” The excellent Politifact evaluated this claim, and concluded that it isn’t really accurate for two reasons: first, Ukraine wasn’t “nuclear-armed” because while Soviet warheads briefly resided there following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine would never have been able to launch them (according to Harvard nuclear specialist Matthew Bunn), and that while the US agreed to respect the sovereignty of- and not attack- Ukraine, it didn’t formally offer a guarantee of protection. Implicit in Carson’s statement is the argument that Ukraine, if it had retained (and, hypothetically controlled) the nuclear weapons left after the collapse, wouldn’t have been subject to Russian aggression. This paints Carson as a strong believer in nuclear deterrence.

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