There were a number of under- and over-achievers this week. In the Virginia gubernatorial race Ken Cuccinelli II and the post-defeat complainers from the far-right were downers. There were, however, some obvious standouts including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose smashing win makes him the most formidable 2016 aspirant. But in the spirit of finding a figure who might not have been in the headlines but rose to the occasion, I’ll go to the Polk County Republicans confab in Iowa held on Thursday.
The Des Moines Register reported Thursday: “Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivered a brief but harsh tongue-lashing to the Obama administration and Washington politicians tonight in a 13-minute speech in Des Moines.” This is hardly surprising for a governor who appears to be readying for a redemptive presidential campaign. What was noteworthy and impressive however was his emphasis on foreign policy, telling the crowd, “Long before our president presided over the downgrading of our credit, he was presiding over the downgrading of our standing in the world. He alienated Israel. He emboldened Iran. He mowed through the Arab spring aimlessly, without any coherent foreign policy. And his latest gambit in Syria was a demonstration of weakness in a world that needs a strong America.”
Well, it’s about time. I don’t mean it’s about time Perry addressed national security. (In fact he recently made a trip to Israel.) What is long overdue, however, is presidential contenders’ making the case for foreign policy leadership. (Mitt Romney ran from the issue in 2012 while the neo-isolationists these days don’t say much about and don’t want to do much in foreign policy.) Perry, however, is smart to begin focusing on the issue for a number of reasons.
First, the president’s foreign policy — as seen by the ferocious backlash against an Iran interim deal — is a disaster and will be a weight around the neck of his former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to some extent, any other Democrat who runs in 2016. President Obama’s weakness and rash defense budget-cutting has once again helped affix the “weak on defense” label to the Democrats. Second, the right-leaning isolationists are making a serious mistake if they think Christian evangelicals will buy into the idea that we should retreat from the Middle East and “nation build at home.” These Americans are some of the most pro-Zionist voters and, moreover, understand the United States is a force for good in the world. If Perry aims to become the favorite of religious conservatives, a robust foreign policy will go a long way. And finally, he seems to understand that our economic malaise is tied to our international weakness and that presidential leadership and credibility don’t stop at the water’s edge. (For example, this president has initiated no free-trade agreements.)
I hope that once the race really gets underway Perry (if he runs) and the other 2016 contenders don’t avoid foreign policy as Romney unfortunately did. Our foreign policy crises are as important, if not more so, than our domestic woes; they are likely to worsen before 2016. The GOP primary voters and the American people deserve a serious discussion of national security. All candidates should have to clear the commander-in-chief credibility bar.
As time goes on, I’d like to hear their thoughts in greater detail on some of the biggest dilemmas we face and how they would make the case anew for internationalism. It’s important for those who favor a strong defense to have a president who has persuaded voters why foreign engagement serves our economic interests, why our withdrawal from the world threatens allies and our own security interests and why human rights can and should be an integral part of a competent and robust foreign policy.
So for bringing up foreign policy and placing well-deserved emphasis on the topic, we can say, well done, Gov. Perry.