Rick Perry’s Dubious Foreign Policy Vision: 9 Sins

July 16, 2014

Texas Governor Rick Perry is back. The Central American child refugee crisis inflaming the immigration debate has provided this once and possibly future presidential aspirant with an opportunity to bound out onto the national stage, grab the microphone and reintroduce himself to America. His latest performance took the form of an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he strikes at what he views as “isolationism” best represented by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Pointing to the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq, Perry argues that “isolationist policies would only endanger our national security even further,” and according to the headline, “make the threat of terrorism even greater.” European passport holders have flocked to the killing fields of Iraq and Syria to join forces with the Islamic State, Perry observes, and they could one day come to America with malign intent, taking advantage of our visa waiver program. Citing the examples of presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, Perry implores Paul to come back to the non-isolationist Republican fold, in a manner reminiscent of a parent gently scolding a teenager who just isn’t old enough to understand.

Just as Perry uses Paul as a foil representing a growing trend toward restraint in the base of the Republican Party, Perry himself represents the part of the GOP that still has not come to grips with the lessons of the Bush administration and the failures of the neoconservative foreign policy vision.

In his op-ed, Perry commits nine foreign policy sins.

First, Perry opens with the false premise that realist opposition to the dominant paradigm of liberal and neoconservative foreign policy preferences is the same thing as isolationism. Contrary to what Perry and former Vice President Dick Cheney seem to think, realism is not isolationism. Realism is, at its root, a view of human relations — in this case international relations — with a focus on power and strategy. National interests provide the analytical starting point of realism. From there, realists reason forward, seeking to understand what is happening, how national interests are and are not affected, and only then whether and how American power can be deployed to advance and safeguard national interests. Conversely, liberal interventionists and neoconservatives have a tendency to begin with how the United States can intervene and reason backwards from there, arriving, not surprisingly, at a limitless conception of the national interest. The great realists of history were not isolationists. U.K. War and Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh; Austrian diplomat Prince Clemens von Metternich; George Kennan; presidents Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush; and Henry Kissinger were all internationalists deeply engaged in the world on behalf of their countries while keenly understanding the limits of national power and the boundaries of national interests.

Second, Perry doesn’t understand the root of the “problem.” His misleading blurring of lines between isolationists and realists notwithstanding, there is a growing sentiment among the American populace that could be described as isolationist. But people like Paul have nothing to do with this. Rather, it is people with Perry’s views who have made the country tired of war. As Paul Saunders correctly argued in The National Interest, “Americans’ rejection of war—and, indeed, their reluctance to get involved in many international problems—is in fact a direct consequence of the interventionist case for action.” Along those lines, Paul writes,

Many of those clamoring for military action now are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge and purpose of the Iraq war. They have been so wrong for so long. Why should we listen to them again?

Perry says that many on the left and some on the right share Paul’s views. Actually, polling suggests an even wider cross-section of the American public shares these basic leanings towards restraint. Even Republicans are split on the issue. And most Americans are highly skeptical of further direct U.S. involvement in Iraq, with only 43% supporting airstrikes and barely over half supporting the deployment of military advisers and unmanned aerial aircraft. Perry willfully lacks perspective on this. Even worse, he argues that those who recognize the limits of American power are somehow increasing the likelihood that jihadist terrorists will attack the homeland. One can only turn to the politics of fear so many times before it loses its impact.

Third, Perry misrepresents the realist position on the current crisis in Iraq. Despite claims to the contrary, Paul is not (or at least not yet) the realist poster boy, but he has openly aligned himself with the realist camp. Perry attacks him for “suggest[ing] that our nation should ignore what’s happening in Iraq.” The trouble is, that isn’t the argument Paul made, nor are any authoritative realist voices making this case, but instead are pointing out the limits of military power in shaping outcomes inside today’s turbulent Iraq. Paul said that U.S. ground troops should be used “to secure or evacuate U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities.” And he insisted that key questions should be answered before airstrikes could be considered — namely what such strikes would accomplish, how they might aid Iran and its interests, and whom we would be supporting. As Paul seems to understand, it is not as black and white as Perry’s depiction. To present a false choice, as Perry does, between action and anti-American terrorism is misleading and sloppy.

Fourth, Perry’s concern that European jihadist veterans of Iraq and Syria could one day travel to America to launch attacks is legitimate. But surely there is also an argument that this risk would increase by taking sides in the Iraqi civil war or the Syrian civil war.

Fifth, Perry goes on to do the classic “Reagan would do this” routine. To be fair to Perry, he did not start the “what would Reagan do” line of argument — he was responding to Paul’s invocation of Reagan. But it is still problematic. There wouldn’t be a problem with it if Perry hadn’t been so selective with history. Perry cites “Reagan’s long internationalist record of leading the world with moral and strategic clarity.” Reagan “identified Soviet communism as an existential threat to our national security and Western values, and he confronted this threat in every theater.” He “led proudly from the front, not from behind, and when he drew a ‘red line,’ the world knew exactly what that meant.”

Perry should remember that this is the same Reagan who often changed his mind and often chose diplomacy over force. Reagan ordered troops out of a deadly civil war in Lebanon (rightly so) after a deadly attack on American forces, sought diplomatic solutions with Iran, negotiated with the communists in the Soviet Union, and so on. These sort of decisions by President Barack Obama have prompted derision from neoconservatives and Perry. One can and should celebrate the Reagan legacy especially because he was a clarion call to general principles (even if those principles did not inform his policies in Latin America) while still being a pragmatic realist when it came to national interests. That is all lost on Perry. We can, as the governor says, credit Reagan’s leadership for the end of the Cold War, just as we can credit his prudent successor, George H.W. Bush, for effectively managing the immediate post-Cold War period. However, Reagan’s most important leadership decisions were opting to negotiate with the Soviets and seeking to reduce American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Reagan was also pragmatic on the issues of terrorism and intervention. He understood that terrorism, which was common in the 1980s, was not a threat on the same level as the Soviet Union. There is no Soviet Union anymore and Perry might want to think twice before he elevates the Islamic State to the same level.

Sixth, Perry doesn’t do justice to Eisenhower’s presidency. Eisenhower did break the isolationist trend in the Republican Party in 1952 and indeed, as Perry points out, was an internationalist. But as president, he steadfastly avoided what he called “brushfire wars” and implemented a strict, realist calculation of the national interest, even to the point of opposing close allies in their intervention in Suez.

Seventh, Perry dismisses Reagan’s opponents who worried that his actions would push the Soviets towards war. But it turns out the person who worried about this the most was none other than Reagan himself. After the 1983 NATO nuclear exercise called Able Archer, Reagan wrote in his own notes that he worried the Soviets were unnecessarily fearful of American intentions and his defense buildup. He speculated that it was time to try and take steps to reassure them. Reagan continued:

I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that. What the hell have they got that anyone would want.

If Perry does one day ascend to the Oval Office, we hope he learns that one of the most sacred responsibilities of the commander in chief is to keep America out of unnecessary wars.

Eighth, Perry is right to identify Obama’s red line in Syria as a mistake, although it was the red line statement that was the mistake, not the failure to go to war over it. But what would Perry do? Assad is the person killing the bad guys that he says are such a grave threat to America. It turns out the world is a complex place, and just as he takes to task the “do nothing” crowd, the “do something crowd” offers little else in the way of meaningful and realistic policy options.

Ninth, Perry calls on Obama to provide “meaningful assistance” to Iraq, which “can include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing and airstrikes.” Aside from airstrikes, the United States is already doing much of this, as Paul pointed out in his stinging rebuttal. But what about those airstrikes? Airstrikes on what, on whom? Where does this belief that airstrikes would be decisive come from? While airstrikes could be tactically useful, they could pose great strategic risks. And how would American airstrikes fit in with Iran’s objectives? And Syria’s? Since we would be presumably striking the same entity, does that mean we should cooperate with Assad and Tehran? We don’t know because he doesn’t address that.

These sins are not Governor Perry’s alone. They are committed everyday by political players on the right and the left — from Senator John McCain to Anne Marie Slaughter, who could serve as secretary of state in a Hillary Clinton administration. Foreign policy should be a vital question and all potential candidates for 2016 need to address how they see the world. It is also a debate that should proceed from a common set of facts and avoid inappropriate and inapplicable characterizations — to call into question the dominant liberal and neoconservative paradigms of the last 20 years, which have led to massive costs and deeply weakened America’s global position is not isolationism, it is realism.


Sean Kay, Ph.D. is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and Public Affairs, and also Robson Professor of Politics and International Studies Chair at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of the forthcoming America’s Search for Security:  The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism (2014). Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC