I candidly have been confused by Texas Gov. Perry’s foreign policy views. His record on Israel is impeccable, and he sounded Reagan-esque in this announcement speech. But in two debates he’s not articulated a clear message. In his first outing he didn’t do much to clarify what he meant in his Veterans of Foreign Wars speech about “military adventurism.” In his second, he sounded in tune with Jon Huntsman on Afghanistan.
After some lengthy discussion with one of the people familiar with Perry’s national security views, who agreed to speak only on background, I came away with a somewhat better understanding of his general stance on national security issues and also the challenges that a governor faces in making the transition from state politics to the international stage.
I was told candidly that the formulation of foreign policy is a work in progress. Because Perry got in late and because the central issues of the campaign are domestic ones, we haven’t gotten a definitive explanation of where Perry stands on a variety of issues. In the debate for example, an odd answer on Afghanistan which began with Perry agreeing with Jon Huntsman failed to convey what it was that Perry actually was agreeing with, namely concern that the number of troops in Afghanistan may not be appropriate for the mission we want to accomplish. (That leaves me wondering why Perry, who was roundly criticized by foreign policy hawks, didn’t make any effort to clarify his view after the debate.) The expectation is that campaign advisors will spend more time as the race progresses to make sure the governor’s views are fully fleshed out.
Perry does have some basic views on national security that would set up quite a contrast with the president. As I’ve written before, he is devoted to Israel’s security. As for our own spending on national defense, I was told that he is very concerned about the state of our military and takes issue with the idea that we should ravage defense to pay for entitlements and other domestic spending.
Those on the campaign (Victoria Coates, a former researcher for Donald Rumsfeld whose background was in art history previously, has the national security portfolio) and those advising the campaign, including former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams and John P. Hannah, who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, have views and records which suggest a robust, forward-leaning national security outlook. Coates and Abrams are strong advocates of the Bush “freedom agenda,” but it is not yet clear if Perry is.
The structure of the campaign is becoming evident as time passes. Coates is the national security and education policy adviser on the campaign who, along with four or five other policy advisors, reports up to Chip Roy, the campaign’s policy head. In addition the campaign is bringing in a range of outside experts, who have not formally endorsed Perry, but who are providing expertise on different topics. What is missing at this stage is getting face time with the governor, who is described to me as a “discussion person” who prefers direct interaction with his advisers. At least with regard to national security matters, he likes brief, bullet-point memos he can read on the go, and for longer reading prefers books to lengthy white papers.
What comes across to me is a candidate who is getting smart people who share a Reagan-esque view of foreign policy but who, as a governor, has not developed concrete policy positions or a fluency in talking about national security. It’s very different from the Romney campaign, which has been through this before and has a candidate who can opine unscripted on a variety of national security issues.
In Arizona, for example, Romney went on at some length about Iran, telling an audience: Obama’s “mistakes internationally may be of even longer consequence and they may be more severe. Iran is on track to become nuclear. If they have a nuclear weapon, the Saudis will insist on having one, and other nations will insist, Turkey and Syria, depending on what happens in Syria, but we’ll have nations all throughout the Middle East with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, the threat of fissile material falling into the hands of those who would use it against us or against our friends in the world gets higher and higher and higher. It’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
He continued, “The President decided to give Russia their number one foreign policy objective. Over the last decade it’s been to get us to remove our plans for a missile defense site in Eastern Europe. This president gave them that and got nothing in return. He did not get them to agree to have crippling sanctions against Iran. Had he done that I believe we would have got China to come on board. They would not want to be the last man standing so to speak. And we could have had crippling sanctions against Iran. It is so unfortunate that the President didn’t do that. We also have to make very clear to the people of Iran that they don’t want to become a nuclear nation. They don’t understand that becoming a nuclear nation, if ever fissile material is used anywhere in the world, they become a suspect and America can respond to them. Just because they were the ones that supplied the material, whether or not they used it, and they can become a very endangered nation by virtue of that policy. They need to understand that.” And finally, he made very clear his position on Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear weapons: “And finally, they need to understand that the United States of America has plans for military action. That we have the military option. That it’s not off the table, that it’s on the table. And those sanctions, communicating to the Iranian people, as well as having on the table those military options, are the essential ingredients to getting Iran to take a different course. . . .We cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear nation and threaten the world.”
In looking at these two candidates, there certainly is a contrast in terms of familiarity and understanding of issues, but it’s not clear that there really is much substantive difference. As the campaign unfolds that will become more evident. As for Perry, he will eventually need to show he is up to speed on an array of issues, and he is relying for now on an absence of interest in and debate time for national security. That may be a reasonable political calculation, but it does leave him open to attack that we can’t endure another president who is a novice on urgent matters of national defense.