Daniel P. Shook/U.S. Army



Paul Ryan In, Foreign Policy Out

With former Gov. Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) lacking virtually any significant hands on foreign policy experience, and President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden commandeering foreign policy as their main accomplishment, and as some would argue, their only accomplishment, a reasonable foreign policy debate, it would seem, is something that voters are going to be robbed of.

Given the many challenges facing the United States internationally, is unfortunate. Inevitably, if going by the 2008 campaign, a presidential debate will feature foreign policy as a theme, but with likely voters publicly acknowledging in poll after poll that team Obama has done reasonably well internationally, the Romney campaign is unlikely to chip away significantly at this perception. The Romney campaign made a concerted effort to do this with Romney’s trip to London, Israel and Poland, but his missteps are likely to overshadow any perceived net-positives of his trip.

He did accomplish one feat, which likely was the reason for the trip in the first place. The candidate was photographed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and made comments to the effect that he would do more to keep Iran nuclear free than the Obama administration has done, which likely did wonders with Jewish voters on the fence in the swing state of Florida. “We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option,” Romney said while in Jerusalem. “We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so.” “In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded,” Romney continued. “We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself and that it is right for America to stand with you.”

The Obama administration, perhaps sensing an opening, announced $70 million in additional military aid for Israel at the same time that Romney was visiting Israel. This is not to say that team Romney will not try to paint Obama as a failure on foreign policy. How successfully they can pull this off remains to be seen. But with unemployment still high and unlikely to fall precipitously by November and Congressman Paul Ryan picked for his command of economics, the Romney campaign is likely to focus, with eagle eye precision, on Obama’s handling of the economy and not on Iran and Afghanistan.

The lack of a foreign policy debate is a rather new phenomenon in American presidential politics. Former President H.W. Bush emphasized foreign policy repeatedly during his re-election campaign against Bill Clinton, and his son, George W. Bush used the threat of terrorism by nonstate actors, as the primary reason that John Kerry should not be elected president.

The fact that George Bush was Commander-in-Chief while the Iraq War was ongoing helped undercut John Kerry. Traditionally, voters are unlikely to change administration’s while a war, popular or not, is ongoing. This is not to suggest that Romney and Ryan are neophytes when it comes to foreign policy. While Mitt Romney, who would be Ryan’s boss in a Romney White House tends to argue for robust military spending and whose ideology can be described as realism, Ryan’s foreign policy could be described as neorealist.

Human rights and trade tend to guide Ryan’s foreign policy. In other words, Mitt Romney could be compared to Bush 41 while Paul Ryan’s foreign policy resembles Bush 43. “We could do a great deal of good in the Middle East with respect to our foreign policy if we engage,” Ryan said at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2009. “Unfortunately that is not the agenda that is being pursued by this White House…This administration has really gone back to an old ‘realpolitik’ agenda and there seems to be a severing of human rights with the interests of our country.” During his CFR appearance, Ryan argued that free trade could be used to advance a human rights agenda.

The pick of Ryan as Mitt Romney’s vice president owes to the reality of possible candidates that Romney had to choose from. Aside from Condoleezza Rice there were few Republicans with foreign policy experience to pick from who could credibly add gravitas to a ticket headed by Mitt Romney. For that matter, Rice repeatedly emphasized that she had no interest in the VP job. Although there were other choices, few were considered seriously. With Jon Huntsman, Obama’s former Ambassador to China demonstrating clear ambivalence towards Mitt Romney in interview after interview, Paul Ryan was clearly one of only a handful of potential Republican possibilities.

Many Republican insiders pressured Romney to pick Paul Ryan. Seth Masket argues, “We don’t entirely know the process by which Ryan was selected, but it seems likely that party forces weighed pretty heavily on Romney’s decision. We have some evidence from 2008, for example, that John McCain wanted Joe Lieberman to be his running mate, but that McCain’s advisers rejected this…Romney, like McCain, has been concerned about retaining the support of conservative activists given his own (recent) past with moderation, and he wanted a running mate who would remove some of the doubts about his ideological purity.”

For Romney, choosing Paul Ryan as his VP carries a lot of risk but also some rewards. Many consider, Obama included, Ryan to be an intellectual heavy weight. Though his proposals are under increased scrutiny, Paul Ryan is at heart a reformer, in the same vein, for better or worse, as the “compassionate conservatives” of the younger Bush administration.

This both helps and hurts the Republican ticket and partially goes to demonstrate why Romney really had to wed his presidential prospects to the fortysomething Wisconsinite. If one offered up a checklist of qualities Mitt Romney sought in a running mate, Ryan satisfied more of them than many of the other individuals believed to have been on the shortlist for the vice presidential spot.

Press reports in the days after the Ryan selection suggested that the White House most feared the selection of former Governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty to be Romney’s running mate. Pawlenty, by all accounts a genuinely nice guy, grew up in a working class household, and had been described as a “Sam’s Club Republican,” someone who could speak to the concerns of working people in ways many Republicans cannot or do not.

However, in both gubernatorial elections in which he stood and won, Tim Pawlenty did so without earning a majority of votes cast. Likewise, his low national profile could well have led Pawlenty to be defined by the other party well before he had a chance to build that rapport with the voting public nationally. Paul Ryan similarly has a nicety to his personality and grew up in a middle class family.

Condoleezza Rice and Rob Portman would have come to the ticket with immense Bush-era baggage. However, both are fairly intelligent and reformist in orientation. To some extent, these are qualities they share with Paul Ryan who has less of that baggage despite voting for nearly every initiative supported by the last administration, from the measure establishing Medicare Part D to the Bush tax cuts, and the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. Even in foreign policy Ryan’s record suggests that he largely lines up with George W. Bush; this may help with parts of the Republican base, but could hurt the ticket among moderates looking for a new direction.

Many in the chattering classes sang the praises of Marco Rubio, the junior United States Senator from Florida. Rubio is relatively young, in his forties like Ryan, and has a strong legislative record. Rubio, like Ryan, is believed by some to make his home state more competitive. Nonetheless, some have argued that Ryan’s controversial Medicare reform proposals could diminish support for Republicans in Marco Rubio’s Florida, where many American retirees reside, despite the fact that the reforms proposed would apply to those a decade and more away from reaching the retirement age of 65.

Louisiana governor Piyush “Bobby” Jindal is another relatively young, rising star on the national stage; some had him pegged to be a good running mate for Romney. Jindal represents the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party, is a former Member of Congress, and has developed a level of prestige and respect among some in the other party. Paul Ryan, a religious Catholic despite his past praise for the philosophy of the firmly atheistic Ayn Rand, is a firm social conservative on contemporary hot-button issues in the United States, such as same-sex marriage and abortion.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was also considered a viable candidate for the number two position on a Romney presidential ticket. Like Ryan, Christie is from a rustbelt state that has not backed a Republican presidential ticket since the eighties (New Jersey went for Bush in 1988 while Wisconsin backed Dukakis; both went Republican during the Reagan landslide in 1984). Just as it is possible that Romney and Ryan could win without carrying Wisconsin, Romney and Christie might have been victorious without New Jersey. Interestingly, both Ryan and Christie enjoy Tea Party support despite neither really being a part of that movement, or even consistently sympathetic to it. Governor Christie will deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention this year in Tampa, Florida.

Paul Ryan comes to the presidential ticket with considerable ideological baggage. However, the Member of Congress from the first congressional district of Wisconsin brings multiple advantages to the ticket lacking in other perspective contenders for the vice presidency on the Republican side. Ryan is young, intelligent, telegenic, personable, and a firm social conservative. Each of these qualities helps the Romney effort in some way. Taken together, they combine to provide a much firmer contrast for the U.S. electorate in November, between the incumbent Democratic administration, and the Republican challengers. Despite their apparent differences, it is unfortunate that both the Romney and Obama camps have relegated foreign policy to a second tier issue. U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan continue to mount and a reasonable debate over the Afghan War is unlikely to happen on the campaign trail nor during any of the presidential or vice presidential debates.

“How’s this for a conspiracy of silence? With less than three months to go until Election Day, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have successfully avoided saying almost anything about America’s war in Afghanistan. Remember that war? You will at some point, however little the two candidates talk about it. You can make your own guesses about why the candidates have said so little about Afghanistan—their positions are virtually identical, the economy is more important, etc. My own guess: neither of them knows what to do about the place. In a mere twenty-eight months, the United States is scheduled to stop fighting, and every day brings new evidence that the Afghan state that is supposed to take over is a failing, decrepit enterprise,” Dexter Filkins recently wrote in The New Yorker.