Rep. Paul Ryan made three good points on Thursday during foreign-policy portions of the VP debate. He's correct that the Obama administration shamefully misled Americans about the attack on our embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Security there was insufficient. And it is hypocritical when Team Obama criticizes Team Romney for wanting to extend the presence of American troops in Iraq. President Obama himself pressed Iraqi officials to permit American troops to stay longer.
Unfortunately, Ryan failed to call the Obama administration on any of the most egregious flaws in its foreign policy, because Republicans agree with most of them. Instead, he talked a lot of nonsense. During the broadcast, it passed by too quickly to attract much notice. His delivery is much smoother than Sarah Palin managed four years back. But he doesn't know any more than she did.
Just check out the transcript--it's much less forgiving than watching Ryan on video*. The performance is especially damning in a candidate with so little proof of competence, who faces added pressure to demonstrate basic knowledge that might be assumed in a more seasoned leader.
The juxtaposition didn't help, either.
For all his charisma, Ryan has radically less foreign-policy experience than his counterpart on the Democratic ticket. The disadvantage is magnified by the highly ideological nature of Republican foreign policy. Its specific judgments on the wisdom of the Iraq war and the desirability of interventionism are rejected by most Americans. And what GOP politicians refer to as guiding principles are often just simplistic talking points that fall apart under the most cursory scrutiny.
Democrats do a slightly better job acknowledging the complexity of geopolitics, but they vastly overestimate how much their experts understand and their ability to forecast the effects of American intervention. In contrast, Republicans talk as if foreign-policy decisions can all flow from abstract ideology. For them, geopolitical events unfold according to a simple, predictable model. Do you believe that America is an exceptional nation, that this must be an American century, that Iran cannot get a bomb, and that Israel is our closest ally? If so, everything will work out. It is a testament to the malleability of language that we now call this ideology "conservative."
Ryan almost certainly doesn't agree with all of what he said. For example, "We should always stand up for peace, for democracy, for individual rights." It seems innocuous enough, but it only takes a moment to see how that formulation is meant to elide all the tough choices real leaders must make. Should the United States stand up for individual rights if it requires more war and less peace? Should it champion more democracy in cases when the individual rights of minorities would suffer? Among voters, there is no disagreement about the desirability of all three goods, but to suggest that it's possible to stand up for all of them, always, is at best an evasion.
For Romney-Ryan, it is also a lie. If you intend, as they do, to keep something like our present relationship with Saudi Arabia, to have "no sunlight" between our positions and those of Israel, and to continue bombarding rural Pakistani communities with drone strikes, it is not possible to also "always" fight for peace, democracy, and individual rights. Breezily thoughtless mendacity like that isn't usually challenged, but that doesn't change the fact that Ryan routinely engages in it.
Of course, lots of politicians lie in that way. Where Ryan really distinguishes himself is the rest of the debate.
Here's a slightly more specific assertion he made:
We should not be imposing these devastating defense cuts, because what that does when we equivocate on our values, when we show that we're cutting down on defense, it makes us more weak. It projects weakness. And when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us. They're more brazen in their attacks.
To argue that Pentagon cuts are unwise is legitimate. But conflating those cuts with abandoning American values betrays a total misunderstanding of what American values actually are. Hint: They're far more enduring than a line item in the budget, and they're undiminished when defense contractors with powerful lobbyists get marginally less of the economic pie. There is, too, the fact that the adversary we're presently focused on fighting, al-Qaida, is going to be intent on attacking us whether we spend 2 percent or 52 percent of our GDP on defense. That particular adversary is obviously eager to test us even if we project maximal strength.
Does Ryan understand that?
With all the talk from conservatives about Obama's alleged "apology tour," a phenomenon they've fabricated, it was fascinating to see Ryan's answer in this exchange with the moderator:
RADDATZ: Mr. Ryan, I want to ask you about--the Romney campaign talks a lot about no apologies. He has a book called called No Apologies. Should the U.S. have apologized for Americans burning Korans in Afghanistan? Should the U.S. apologize for U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses?
RYAN: Oh, gosh, yes. Urinating on Taliban corpses? What we should not apologize for ...
RADDATZ: Burning Korans, immediately?
RYAN: What--what we should not be apologizing for are standing up for our values. What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he's a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go. What we should not be doing is rejecting claims for--for calls for more security in our barracks, in our Marine--we need Marines in Benghazi when the commander on the ground says we need more forces for security. There were requests for extra security; those requests were not honored.
So some apologies are OK after all.
Ryan says this as if Obama has, on some occasion, apologized for standing up for American values. In fact, the statements that conservatives characterize as apologies consist of Obama acknowledging, although never actually apologizing for, instances when America fell short of its values. Bizarrely, Ryan goes on to talk as if America's shady relationship with Mubarak and its dearth of security in Libya are apt examples of apologizing for American values. It actually sounds as though Ryan thinks we owe the Egyptian people an apology, which is interesting. In terms of criticizing apologies, the answer makes no sense at all.
On Iran, it sure seems like Team Obama and Team Romney assert the same position: We want to resolve this peacefully; we can more credibly do that than the other guys; but we're also prepared to strike militarily because Iran getting nukes is unacceptable--it won't happen on our watch. And, by the way, we're totally cool with Israel, which is totally on the same page as us.
They're attacking one another on the issue anyway.
Here's how Ryan does it:
When this administration says that all options are on the table, they send out senior administration officials that send all these mixed signals. And so, in order to solve this peacefully--which is everybody's goal--you have to have the ayatollahs change their minds. Look at where they are. They're moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. It's because this administration has no credibility on this issue. It's because this administration watered down sanctions, delayed sanctions, tried to stop us for putting the tough sanctions in place.
An intelligent discussion of Iran and nuclear weapons would acknowledge that the actions of the ayatollahs are not in fact entirely or even predominantly governed by presidential signalling--that lots of factors beyond our control, like the strategic value of having nukes, how impervious their program is to air strikes, actual damage done by sanctions, and their retaliatory ability, among many other substantive factors, shape the speed with which they seek a nuclear weapon.
They say the military option's on the table, but it's not being viewed as credible. And the key is to do this peacefully, is to make sure that we have credibility. Under a Romney administration, we will have credibility on this issue.
Why would Romney be more credible? That's the core of his argument on Iran, but it's backed up by nothing. All the underlying real world factors would be the same. The ayatollahs aren't uninformed enough to view Obama as a Kenyan anticolonial appeaser like some Dinesh D'Souza sycophant.
Biden pressed on this point:
BIDEN: It's incredible. Look, imagine had we let the Republican Congress work out the sanctions. You think there's any possibility the entire world would have joined us, Russia and China, all of our allies? These are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions, period. Period. When Governor Romney's asked about it, he said, "We gotta keep these sanctions." When he said, "Well, you're talking about doing more," what are you--you're going to go to war? Is that what you want to do?
RYAN: We want to prevent war.
BIDEN: And the interesting thing is, how are they going to prevent war? How are they going to prevent war if they say there's nothing more that we--that they say we should do than what we've already done.... So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk, what are they talking about? Are you talking about, to be more credible--what more can the president do, stand before the United Nations, tell the whole world, directly communicate to the ayatollah, we will not let them acquire a nuclear weapon, period, unless he's talking about going to war.
How did Ryan respond to the assertion that Team Romney is all bluster, that they don't actually advocate anything more than Obama has done, and that they'd be more credible to the ayatollahs if elected?
RYAN: Let's look at this from the view of the ayatollahs. What do they see? They see this administration trying to water down sanctions in Congress for over two years. They're moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. They're spinning the centrifuges faster. They see us saying when we come into the administration, when they're sworn in, we need more space with our ally, Israel. They see President Obama in New York City the same day Bibi Netanyahu is and he, instead of meeting with him, goes on a--on a daily talk show. They see, when we say that these options are on the table, the secretary of Defense walked them back.
It's important to understand how absurd this is. For better or worse, Obama cooperated with Israel on Stuxnet, an act of cyberwarfare that destroyed actual Iranian centrifuges; kept supporting Israel as it assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists; removed MEK, an anti-regime group in Iran, from its list of official terrorists; and worked to get international cooperation for sanctions now causing street protests in Iran. Whatever you think of those steps, it's idiotic to suggest, when the ayatollahs were witness to it all, that they assessed Obama's seriousness based on the fact that he appeared on The View. It's foreign-policy analysis worthy of Sean Hannity.
"The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50 percent fewer exports of oil," Biden retorted. "He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into free-fall. And he sees the world for the first time totally united in opposition to him getting a nuclear weapon." And Romney-Ryan insist that Obama's appearance on The View helped undermine all that.
A bit later, Ryan said, "When--when we see the kind of equivocation that took place because this administration wanted a precondition policy, so when the Green Revolution started up, they were silent for nine days." And he says it without ever seeming to realize that America loudly endorsing the Green Revolution would have undermined it in Iran. He doesn't even acknowledge and attempt to refute the relevant argument, because he's operating on a simplistic level.
A politician who has proved his bona fides on national security could perhaps get away with this. But Ryan has never given any indication that he knows any better. For all we know, he believes his own BS.
Another Ryan claim, this time about reducing the Pentagon budget:
If these cuts go through, our Navy will be the smallest--the smallest it has been since before World War I.
Politifact addressed this back when Romney said something similar:
Counting the number of ships or aircraft is not a good measurement of defense strength because their capabilities have increased dramatically in recent decades. Romney's comparison "doesn't pass 'the giggle test,' " said William W. Stueck, a historian at the University of Georgia. Consider what types of naval ships were used in 1916 and 2011. The types of ships active in both years, such as cruisers and destroyers, are outfitted today with far more advanced technology than what was available during World War I. More importantly, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carriers (plus the jets to launch from them), 31 amphibious ships, 14 submarines capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles, and four specialized submarines for launching cruise missiles--all categories of vessels that didn't exist in 1916.
Here's another way to put this. What do you think would happen if the U.S. Navy of 2011 fought the U.S. Navy of 1916? Is that a useful comparison? And if the U.S. Navy had to fight any other fleet on planet Earth?
This graphic gets at what would happen:
Ryan is entitled to critique the Obama administration's desired level of military spending. But the specific comparison he marshaled isn't something any intelligent man would invoke unless he didn't think very highly of the intelligence of his audience, or lacked the capacity to make a serious critique.
All that leaves is a final exchange on Afghanistan. Team Obama and Team Romney both insist that they want American troops gone from the country by the end of 2014. Ryan's core critique of Team Obama:
RYAN: We don't want to stay. We want--look, one of my best friends in Janesville, a reservist, is at a forward-operating base in eastern Afghanistan right now. Our wives are best friends. Our daughters are best friends. I want--I want him and all of our troops to come home as soon and safely as possible. We want to make sure that 2014 is successful. That's why we want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful. We don't want to extend beyond 2014. That's the point we're making. You know, if it was just this, I'd feel like we would--we would be able to call this a success, but it's not. What we are witnessing as we turn on our television screens these days is the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy. Problems are growing at home, but--problems are growing abroad, but jobs aren't growing here at home.
RADDATZ: Let me go back to this. He says we're absolutely leaving in 2014. You're saying that's not an absolute, but you won't talk about what conditions would justify ...
RYAN: Do you know why we say that?
BIDEN: I'd like to know ...
RYAN: Because we don't want to broadcast to our enemies "put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back." We want to make sure ...
RADDATZ: But you agree with the timeline.
RYAN: We do agree--we do agree with the timeline and the transition, but what we--what any administration will do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline. What we do not want to do ...
So by Ryan's logic, announcing the date that the United States will leave in Afghanistan is likely to cause the Taliban to wait us out, when otherwise it would have disbanded or surrendered or something ... whereas it's perfectly OK to announce, Hey, we intend to leave by Dec. 31, 2013, and really want to make it happen, but won't definitely leave. Apparently that little hedge will cause the Taliban to do some unspecified thing that significantly weakens it.
Again, there are serious critiques of Obama's Afghanistan policy.
That is not one of them.
The end of the exchange was even worse for Ryan:
RYAN: What we don't want to do is give our allies reason to trust us less and our enemies more--we don't want to embolden our enemies to hold and wait out for us and then take over ...
BIDEN: Martha, that's a bizarre statement.
RYAN: That's why we want to make sure--no, that's why we want to make sure that ...
BIDEN: Forty-nine of our allies--hear me--49 of our allies signed on to this position.
Here's the difference between Biden and Ryan: Whereas Biden has been studying foreign policy for many decades (over which he's made his share of mistakes), everything Ryan knows about foreign policy, or at least everything he's shown us he knows, comes from interventionist ideologues with talking points that test well among the base and bear little resemblance to reality. I didn't quite realize how awful Ryan's performance was until I read the transcript of the debate. Biden did smile too much. It distracted me from Ryan's apparent unfitness to be commander in chief.
He just isn't a credible steward of U.S. foreign policy.
For related analysis of Mitt Romney's recent foreign policy speech see here.
*As David French noted at National Review, "This will be a tough debate for the partisans to evaluate objectively in large part because Biden's derision grates so thoroughly on conservative nerves even as it invigorates liberals."