James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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A Foreign Policy Platform from Rick Perry? Not Quite

by James M. Lindsay
August 30, 2011

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry walks to his bus after a campaign stop at D.C. Taylor Roofing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, August 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young

Republican presidential candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry walks to his bus after a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 16, 2011. (Jim Young/courtesy Reuters)

Rick Perry used his speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars 112th National Convention to sketch his foreign policy views. Here is the essence of what he had to say:

As the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9-11 approaches, we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home.

I do not believe America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism.

We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened.

And we should always look to build coalitions among the nations to protect the mutual interests of freedom-loving people.

It is not in our interests to go it alone. We respect our allies, and must always seek to engage them in military missions.

At the same time, we must be willing to act when it is time to act.

We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies.

And when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders.

I say this because we owe to them, and to their loved ones, to make sure any war we wage is led by the country with the most advanced military technology and the best training.

Three things to note about the speech. First, it’s politically savvy. There is something in it for every significant foreign policy constituency in the GOP. Worried about weakness in the Oval Office? Perry promises to take the fight to the enemy. Concerned that the United States is doing too much overseas? Perry opposes “military adventurism” and will risk shedding American blood only “when our vital interests are threatened.” Hopeful that the United States will work with other countries? Perry says “we respect our allies” and “we should always look to build coalitions.” Worried that international organizations are constraining America’s ability to act? Perry won’t ask “multilateral debating societies” for permission slips before acting overseas. Fearful of what tough budgetary times mean for defense spending? Perry vows to make sure that the United States will continue to have “the most advanced military technology.”

Second, any mainstream Republican or Democratic presidential candidate could have given Perry’s speech. After all, not many candidates for president would say they favor military adventurism, disrespecting America’s allies, or letting America’s military edge slide. That doesn’t mean, however, that commentators won’t read a lot more into Perry’s speech because of the history and geography he shares with George W. Bush. The messenger is often as important as the message in determining what we see and hear. Indeed, one of the first news stories on Perry’s speech headlined it “Perry Calls for Aggressive Foreign Policy.” Should this trope take hold, it will only be a matter of days before conservative bloggers rifle though Obama’s many speeches and find him saying a lot of the same things.

Third, while Perry’s speech was heavy on foreign policy bromides it was short on specifics. What constitutes “a vital interest”? Does Perry think that any recent uses of U.S. military force qualify as “military adventurism”? How would a President Perry square his vow to maintain the world’s best military with his pledge to balance the federal budget without raising taxes? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The good news is that the GOP plans to hold four presidential debates in September. With any luck the moderators will push Perry and his fellow candidates away from generalities and toward specifics. Only when that happens will we know where Perry or any of his rivals stand on foreign policy.

In the meantime, are there any specific foreign policy questions you’d like to ask Perry?

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by jamesf

    I agree with Mr. Lindsay. This segment of Mr. Perry’s speech says nothing, as most political speeches do. It is an attempt to please all of the people all of the time. we know that if in office, all these statements would not prove out true. I guess it really depends upon the definition of vital in this case. Are we going to work with other nations, or go it alone? If we go it alone we’re risking adventurism. If it was important enough not to be an adventure, we could probably find some help and not be alone in our efforts. Taking the fight to the enemy is definatley going to cost a lot of money and spill a lot of American blood. we’ve proved that over the last decade. Is it vital to take the fight overseas? have we now spent more in American blood and money then we would have in another attack? Can this even be realistically measured? when we build these coalitions is it going to be on on U.S. terms only? How else are we going to out of multilateral debates among societies? I would say joining coalitions is joining multilateral debates. American troops are led by american commanders. We will allow other nations (i.e. French NATO commanders in Libya theater of operations) to call strategic shots, but we definitely have input as the U.S. Getting support from other countries is having to sometimes let them take the lead. These are the ways we’re going to be able to accomplish military tasks with the looming budget constraints. The U.S. is soon going to be asked to do so much more with so much less because we must get the deficit under control. While new technology is nice, the money has to come from somewhere. Coalition partnerships are going to be a necessity and going it alone is not going to be an option in the next couple decades. Politicians get to keep making vague and dual-sided statements because we, the American public, aren’t smart enough to make it stop. Wrong or right?

  • Posted by Mary Beth Kooper

    Perry says, “we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home.” To me this seems to imply that this is not the current policy, so what would he do differently now to “take the fight” to the enemy?

  • Posted by jamesf

    In reply to Mary: Maybe it means we should attack other countries then afghanistan. I wonder if that’s going to solve the problem. Definitely will not if we act unilaterally.

  • Posted by JustinK

    Like jamesf, I also agree with Mr. Lindsay. The obvious ambiguity of the statements made in Mr. Perry’s speech makes it nothing of any real substance from which a voter can derive an understanding of what the candidate’s foreign policy will be if elected. But rather, it is a speech to play to as many constituencies of the right as possible as he seeks to win the Republican nomination for the 2012 election. For the center right who may fear the potential unilateral crusades of another Texas Governor turned president, Perry’s speech assuages those concerns by promising multilateralism and prudence. However, the concerns of the more conservative elements of the Republican base are also taken into account as Perry simultaneously refuses to relinquish America’s ability to “go at it alone”.

    The debates in September could shed some light on what the international role of America would be under a Republican president as it will force the nominees chance to explain their policy ideas not in generalities, but with specificity. However, I fear that the broad and politically expedient statements will persist as Perry and his fellow nominees will continue to step side a serious discussion on the issue of foreign policy. Similar to their strategies in the prior debates, the candidates may look to discredit President Obama without giving any detailed indication of what they would do in lieu of Obama’s actions in Libya, Syria, and on China. Furthermore, America will once again hear the perfect, simplistic, (yet oft contradictory) balance of what our foreign policy should be: multilateralism, and moral, interest driven unilateralism.

    In the long run however, political posturing may not be beneficial to Perry or any potential candidate for the Republican nomination. While our fledgling economy will be the big issue in 2012, there are going to be many pressing foreign policy issues at the beginning of the new presidential term which could potentially have enormous impacts on the future. For voters like myself, the American public, and the world, the lack of clarity from Perry and his Republican counterparts on what their foreign policy will entail will no longer cut the mustard as the United States will be forced to grapple with some of the largest and most complicated shifts in global affairs since the end of the Cold War. How does Perry plan to promote American interests in the Middle East where the United States will now have to deal with the new revolutionary governments that were preceded by the very dictators which it previously supported? What will Perry do that preserve America’s international standing as China looks to extend its economic, military, and political influence into Southeast Asia and the rest of the globe? While many today rightly argue that a “one size fits all” foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) does not reflect the complexities of international relations, some good can be had from a clearly defined foreign policy: it gives your citizens confidence as they are able to predict how certain issues will be dealt with, and it signals to other nations and non-state actors as to how you might react to their moves. In this time of global uncertainty, the American public and the world need direction; Perry and each of the Republican hopefuls might do well to tell us what their vision of that direction might be.

  • Posted by jamesf

    JustinK is on it. Candidate campaigns are just discrediting Obama with no fix. You can’t come to the table only complaining about how everything is a mess. Come with a solution. The problem is everyone wants a black and white answer, but there are no black and white answers in the political and social science realms. there are however, theory’s that frame a path of approach to possible solutions. republican’s and democrats often have the same ends in mind, but the ways and means of achieving them are where disagreement occurs. the American public wants to know the candidates ways to meet ends at the minimum. the means we will accept as details to come later, but don’t just get on the pulpit and talk about how the other candidates ways are all wrong, provide your own solution so we can choose between you. offering every way as your solution is also not applicable. we (the public) know that you can’t achieve the end by using every possible way. you must narrow the scope for economic, military and diplomatic reasons. take a definitive stand and stop back-pedaling every time you think you’re loosing votes. Truth and honesty will go a long way this election period. we (the public) may not always agree with you , but we will at least respect you for telling us what you really intend to do.

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