Commentary

Rick Perry: Know-Nothing Neoconservatism Reincarnated?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has leapt to the top in the Republican presidential race. His domestic policy looks standard-issue conservative. But his foreign policy veers neoconservative — even after George W. Bush and Barack Obama together launched two full-scale wars, one “kinetic military action,” and two deadly drone-campaigns.

With the economy stuck in the doldrums, President Obama faces a potentially difficult reelection fight. However, it will take someone to beat him, and so far the leading Republicans do not impress. In a party that tends to practice political primogeniture, Mitt Romney was early anointed the front-runner. Yet dissatisfied GOP voters rushed to embrace an unknown new entrant, Rep. Michelle Bachman. Now Republicans are flocking to Gov. Perry, who a couple years ago declared that “I have no interest in coming to Washington.” Perry’s political opening looms large.

What would a Perry victory mean for America’s role in the world? Like most governors, including his predecessor, Rick Perry hasn’t talked that much about international issues, even though he has traveled far more extensively than had George W. Bush. But the early signs are not encouraging. In the 2008 race Perry endorsed Rudy Giuliani — notable mostly for his know-nothing militancy — as the candidate who “will make America safe.” Perry’s current campaign advisers range from hawkish conservative to Bushian neoconservative. To paraphrase the Bible, where a candidate’s advisers are, there will his policy be.

The hyper-hawks, whose affiliations include the American Enterprise Institute, National Review Online, and Heritage Foundation, suggest Perry’s general commitment to an imperial foreign policy and force structure. Worse is the role of Bush cabal, highlighted by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who apparently put Perry in touch with several of the others, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, and NSC staffer William Luti — all architects of the catastrophe known as George Bush’s foreign policy. Gov. Perry’s reliance on these people suggests a proclivity for promiscuous and reckless war making.

One unnamed Perry adviser told Foreign Policy online’s Josh Rogin that Perry “will distinguish himself from other Republicans as a hawk internationalist, embracing American exceptionalism and the unique role we must play in confronting the many threats we face.” Michael Goldfarb, who worked for uber-hawk John McCain, approvingly termed Perry “a cowboy,” and said “you have to assume he’d shoot first and ask questions later.”

Obviously, the president who inevitably comes to mind is George W. Bush, who knew little of the nations he was invading and the societies he was destroying. Bush twinned recklessness with hubris, the belief that Washington could easily override differences in history, tradition, culture, ethnicity, religion, and more and quickly remake the world.

Years later the U.S. remains far short of its goal of creating liberal, democratic allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The situation in Pakistan is worse than ever, while conflict rages in Yemen and Libya. The only policy the U.S. appears to know is war.

Unfortunately, Perry’s simplistic worldview applies to more than just Islamic lands. He opposed the “reset” of relations with Russia, which, he said, is “increasingly aggressive and troublesome to its neighbors and former satellite nations.” He worried about the rise of China and India. He warned that Iran and North Korea represent “an imminent threat with their nuclear ambitions.” He argued that “leftists in Latin America are threatening democracy, and Hugo Chavez is harboring communist rebels in Venezuela.”

It’s quite a list, and Perry concluded that “All of these issues require our attention and investment in defense capabilities.” Naturally he advocated increasing military spending and even talked about sending U.S. troops to Mexico. Rogin’s assessment was that Perry’s “approach to foreign policy and national security appears to be a natural extension of his personality: aggressive, unapologetic, and instinctive.” Again, this sounds just like George W. Bush.

No doubt, Washington faces international challenges. But America still enjoys unparalleled dominance, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful, even overwhelming, military. The U.S. also continues to possess enviable political stability and an extraordinary appeal to people around the globe. Nor does America face threats alone: Washington is allied with every industrialized state save China and Russia as well as the most powerful nation in the Middle East, Israel. The U.S. is improving its relationship with India, the second potential emerging superpower. And Washington continues to overspread the Americas.

In such a world the U.S. need not confront every threat, and especially need not do so militarily. Russia is determined to regain lost influencealong its borders, not challenge the U.S. for global preeminence. China is building a military to deter the U.S. from attacking it, not to attack America.

North Korea is a problem for America primarily because the U.S. continues to defend its populous and prosperous ally to the south. Pull out America’s troops and Pyongyang’s ability to threaten America largely vanishes. A nuclear Iran would face destruction by both Israel and the U.S. if it attempted to use any weapons that it created, and its leadership has demonstrated no taste for collective suicide. The ability of left-wing Latin American thugs like Chavez to do harm is limited, as demonstrated by his failure to much expand his influence.

In such a world, the U.S. would not be well served by another “aggressive, unapologetic, and instinctive” president and policy. Under George Bush that approach brought strategic failure, human tragedy, and financial ruin. Barack Obama’s mistakes, though many and real, pale in comparison to the record of his predecessor.

Equally worrisome is Perry’s Middle Eastern policy. In a field dominated by candidates who routinely confuse the interests of Israel with those of the U.S., Perry stands out. Earlier this year he complained that President Obama “continues a misguided policy of alienating our traditional allies, in this case Israel, one of our strongest partners in the war on terror.” He charged that the administration was “out of tune with America” on Israel. And he inaccurately accused the president of wanting Israel to “revert” to its 1967 borders. (President Obama actually advocated using those borders to start negotiations.)

Angry about a planned flotilla intended to breach Israel’s Gaza blockade, Perry wrote Attorney General Eric Holder a very public letter in June “to encourage you to aggressively pursue all available legal remedies to enjoin and prevent these illegal actions, and to prosecute any who may elect to engage in them in spite of your preemptive efforts.” Indeed, Perry made the bizarre charge that the flotilla entailed “the furnishing of a vessel with the intent that it be employed to commit hostilities against a people with whom the United States is at peace” and provided “material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.”

There are obvious reasons to favor Israel, including its more liberal and democratic political system. And Perry correctly believes that “a safe, secure Israel is an essential part of stability” in the Middle East. Nevertheless, more than four decades of Israeli military rule in the occupied territories, effectively subsidized and seemingly endorsed by Washington, have created human misery and political anger, generating regional instability and creating a powerful grievance against both Israel and America throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. Supporting Israel’s most extreme parties guarantees that peace will never come.

Moreover, Washington shouldn’t infringe the liberties of American citizens in order to advance Israeli government ends. Whatever the merits of the flotilla, U.S. participants are not terrorists deserving prosecution by their own government. That Gov. Perry so views people bringing humanitarian assistance to Gaza residents, who have suffered so badly from the Israeli blockade, illustrates his blinkered understanding of the complex Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Potentially worse than Perry’s substantive views is how he comes to his positions. Two years ago he declared: “My faith requires me to support Israel.” Normally one’s religion should not be a political issue, but the public deserves to know how Perry’s faith influences his policies. Does he simply believe that Christianity requires concern for the Jewish people, or does he believe that Christian theology requires the U.S. government to reflexively back the Israeli government, irrespective of the impact on Americans? Put another way, would Perry treat the U.S. government as tool to achieve his religious ends? Christian eschatology is rife with foolish theorizing and political quackery, and some believers apply these dubious principles to policy-making as a matter of faith. Does Perry?

Rick Perry’s entry into the presidential race will enliven the campaign. But the early indications are that his candidacy is unlikely to enrich political discourse, at least involving international issues. George W. Bush reborn is not what the Republican Party or America need.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).