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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Paul Ryan Likes Bernard Lewis and Free Trade

by James M. Lindsay
August 15, 2012

Paul Ryan addresses supporters at a rally in Las Vegas. (Steve Marcus/courtesy Reuters) Paul Ryan addresses supporters at a rally in Las Vegas. (Steve Marcus/courtesy Reuters)


CNN’s Jamie Crawford has a nice piece summarizing Paul Ryan’s foreign policy views. Besides offering a sense of some of the countries the GOP vice presidential nominee has visited in recent years, the post has a link to an interview that Ryan gave back in May to the Washington Examiner. Two of the questions dealt with foreign policy:

Q: Among a VP’s duties, are being ready to be President, making decisions on foreign policy and so forth. You’ve been a member of the House for – your’re [sic] in your 14th year. You have to deal with this somewhat, but how do you keep up with what’s going on in Afghanistan and Syria and Mexico?

Ryan: I go there.

Q: What do you read?

Ryan: I go there. I read. I mean I’m a big Bernard Lewis fan. I’ve read all of Bernard Lewis’ books, and I read a lot of his books on this topic are. I formed the Middle East Caucus in early 2000s. On Ways and Means, which is a trade committee, I was point guy on the MEFTA. This is an arcane idea. We used to like doing trade agreements. And the MEFTA is the Middle East Free Trade Area Initiative, which is to create, we believe – and this was a good idea back in the Bush Administration. Get free trade agreements with these moderate Muslim countries, to integrate our economies. You have to require rule of law, women’s rights, you know, enforceable contracts. Yeah, but it’s been languishing, so I worked on the Moroccan Agreement, the Jordanian Agreement, the Omani Agreement, the Bahraini Agreement. I negotiated all the implementing legislation on that with the Democrats. So I spent a lot of my time over my career, traveling to the Middle East. That’s probably where most of my travels have gone. I was in Afghanistan last December; I’ve been there a few times. I spent a lot of time reading about the military, reading up on foreign policy.

Ryan’s admiration for Bernard Lewis’s work will no doubt prompt claims that he must be neo-conservative. After all, Professor Lewis is considered in some quarters to be “perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq.” But he also happens to be one of the Western world’s leading scholars on Islam and the Middle East. Ryan could do a lot worse than read Bernard Lewis.

The bigger point in Ryan’s answer is one I failed to make in my post the other day about his foreign policy views: he is a huge fan of free trade. And not just because it produces substantial economic benefits. But because it promotes liberal democratic values. That’s pretty safe ground for Ryan to stake out (at least as long as he isn’t speaking before an audience convinced that trade has cost them their jobs). The idea that trade and liberal democracy go hand in hand is a staple of American political thought (though one that China’s rise may sorely test).

So when Ryan is pressed in the weeks to come as to whether he has the foreign policy knowledge and expertise to sit a heartbeat away from the presidency, don’t be surprised if he turns the topic pretty quickly to trade. Not only does he have plenty of experience with the subject as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, trade offers him a natural opportunity to showcase his expertise on economics.

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