Is Rick Perry a foreign policy hawk, dove, or something in between? Republicans could be forgiven if, nearly two months into the Texas governor’s run for president, they still don’t know.
Perry has struggled to define his vision for America’s place in the world during his presidential campaign’s early days, alternately sounding like a candidate who thinks the country needs to pull back from the world and one whose views mirror those of the former Texas governor whose footsteps he hopes to follow to the White House: George W. Bush.
It’s no mystery why finding a voice is difficult for any GOP presidential candidate, much less one just now introducing himself to foreign policy after a 26-year career in state politics: On one side, Perry is squeezed by opinion polls showing a public, including the fiscally focused tea party, that wants to reduce America’s foreign footprint; on the other, the GOP's still-influential interventionists, a group that includes military veterans such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the party's 2008 presidential nominee. But instead of pleasing both sides with his Texas two-step, Perry instead might have angered each.
“I’m not sure where he stands, and I don’t know whether he knows where he stands,” said Seth Cropsey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has served as deputy undersecretary of the Navy during the administrations of former Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “It looks as though he’d like to appeal to both the tea partiers who are leaning in the isolationist direction, and traditional Republicans who don’t seem to be leaning that direction.”
One flashpoint for criticism of Perry’s foreign policy came during his second presidential debate last week in Tampa. Asked about whether a heavy troop presence in Afghanistan was worth the cost, the governor said he agreed with opponent Jon Huntsman, who has advocated a quicker drawdown than even President Obama has ordered. The response appeared to ally him with the isolationist-leaning wing of the party, but he quickly added, “It's also really important for us to continue to have a presence there.”
Perry might be struggling to define himself, but increasingly, his critics are doing it for him. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading GOP hawk, called Perry’s criticism “disappointing,” while former Bush official Marc Thiessen called the entire debate’s foreign-policy discussion “pathetic” and highlighted the Texas governor’s remarks. On Tuesday, in the most stinging criticism yet, former Vice President Dick Cheney lumped Perry and Huntsman together, saying the desire both men have to withdraw from Afghanistan was “tragic.”
“I think they were responding to what they believe to be popular opinion in the country,” Cheney told CNN. “I haven't talked to either one of them about this but I do see this sense of ‘It’s time to head for the exits, let's get out, let's bring the boys home, let's spend the money here in the states.’ And I think that would be tragic if in fact it led to a resumption of the kinds of problems that both those nations faced when we went in.”
In an interview, a Perry spokesman described his foreign-policy prescription as one that believes in “preserving a strong a ready military.”
“But he wants to use it generally as a late or last resort after diplomatic, economic, and other pressures are brought to bear,” said spokesman Ray Sullivan. “Generally speaking, the governor believes that our foreign policy would be driven by American interests as opposed to non-specific noble thought or philosophies.”
Pressed on whether the governor wants to draw down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the spokesman equivocated.
“There would be a great deal of weight put in the on-the-ground military command,” he said. “We also must always remember who the commander in chief is and where the buck stops. Ultimately, the governor has a great deal of respect for our military leaders and would put a great deal of weight on their opinion in terms of right and safe way to draw down troops at the appropriate and right time.”
During the last GOP presidential contest, Perry’s estrangement from a strongly hawkish position would have been unthinkable. From Sept. 11, 2001, through the last election cycle, few Republicans dared publicly deviate from the Bush administration's belief in aggressive intervention abroad, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But the rise of the tea party movement, which is skeptical of the wars’ cost, has laid bare decades-long divisions within the conservative movement between its isolationist and hawkish wings. Perry is far from the only candidate to embrace a scaled-back vision of foreign policy: In addition to Huntsman and longtime anti-interventionist Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Mitt Romney has at times urged the need to withdraw troops from the two war zones.
Perry's rhetorical stumbles trying to explain his position are also signs of a candidate who, as governor, has little experience discussing foreign policy. Although his campaign says his experience as an Air Force pilot and his stewardship of a border state give him the experience he needs in foreign poliicy, Perry rarely dealt with the kind of international issues that confront him on the campaign trail. Worse, his late entrance gives him little time to learn, unlike Romney, who has had five and a half years to study since leaving the Massachusetts governor's mansion.