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Politics / Politics

Perry Struggles to Define Foreign Policy Vision

Texas Gov. Rick Perry(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

photo of Alex  Roarty
September 22, 2011

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.

“Certainly, a governor … doesn’t pay that much attention to issues which go outside the borders of his or her state,” said Jim Kolbe, a former Republican congressman and senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “Any candidate like that has a huge learning curve.”

But for all his early struggles, Perry need only look at two recent presidential victors for evidence that voters can look past foreign-policy faux pas. George W. Bush, for instance, struggled to name several prominent world leaders during an interview with a Boston television station in 1999. During debates, he even contrasted himself with Democratic opponent Al Gore, whom he derided as a “nation builder”—a backer of the kind of foreign intervention that would come to define to Bush’s presidency after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Former President Bill Clinton, a governor of a small state, was little different in 1992. George H.W. Bush’s campaign harped on his lack of international experience, at one point suggesting that a position he took on the Yugoslavian conflict demonstrated that Clinton needed "to do more homework” on foreign policy. Clinton turned his seeming weakness into an advantage, arguing that the American economy suffered at home while Bush focused abroad.

Foreign policy has only truly mattered three times in recent presidential elections, according to Kolbe: In 2004, amid the war in Iraq; in 1988, when the Soviet Union was collapsing; and in 1968, in the heat of Vietnam.

“Unless it is an election where foreign policy rides above all else, and it’s very rare that happens, voters are not usually going to make that the issue they focus on,” he said.

A speech Perry delivered in New York on Tuesday offered a message more Republicans can like: an unequivocal defense of Israel embedded within a sharp critique of the Obama administration’s policies toward the Jewish state.

“If America does not head off the aggression of forces hostile to Israel we will only embolden them,” he said. 

Randy Scheunemann, John McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser in 2008, seized on that as a sign that Perry embodies the same internationalist tradition as every recent GOP nominee, from George H.W. Bush to McCain.

“I’m confident we’ll nominate someone in that mold again,” he said. “I think Gov. Perry would be very comfortable in the mainstream foreign policy.”

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