Foreign Policy

08.11.12

Defense Hawks, Rejoice—Paul Ryan’s Your Man!

Romney’s VP pick tilts his ticket closer to the neocons on questions about America’s role in the world.

With the Republican Party's foreign-policy establishment at odds over central questions on national security, the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's choice for vice president tilts the ticket closer to the neoconservatives on key questions about America's role in the world and the size of the military. 

In recent months, Ryan has been receiving briefings from Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush's former Middle East director at the National Security Council, and Fred Kagan, one of the architects of the military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, as first reported by Weekly Standard reporter Stephen Hayes on Twitter. Another conservative foreign-policy specialist who has briefed Ryan said the Romney campaign in Boston has arranged for briefings with a parade of former government experts on foreign policy in recent weeks.

Abrams told The Daily Beast on Saturday that he found Ryan’s views in line with the mainstream of the Republican Party today, saying Ryan was "relaxed, serious, funny, very smart, and knows more about foreign policy than people may think, in view of his concentration on the economy."

Ryan is best known as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, a position he has used to make a national case for significant cuts to social-welfare programs like Medicare and Social Security. Though he voted for a 2011 bill that forces the Pentagon to cut up to $600 billion from defense spending over the next 10 years if a balanced-budget deal is not reached by January, he has also worked closely with Republican defense hawks to stave off those cuts.

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Howard “Buck” McKeon, said he was “very happy” with the Ryan pick. McKeon said he has worked closely with Ryan to come up with ways to at least put off what is known as the sequestration cuts, and he praised the Wisconsin lawmaker for his overall philosophy in defense. “He understands the Reagan principle of having a strong defense and the Eisenhower principle of having a big enough military that no one would ever think about attacking you,” McKeon told The Daily Beast.

Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign- and defense-policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, also praised the Ryan pick. “Unlike a lot of fiscal conservatives, one of the great things about Paul Ryan is he is not omni-directionally a budget cutter,” she said. “He understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps.”

One reason why the Ryan pick is seen as a win for foreign-policy hawks is because of the Romney campaign’s choice of Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president and bitter foe of neoconservatives inside the George W. Bush administration, to head up the process of selecting national-security and foreign-affairs appointments if Romney wins. Writing in The Washington Post, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin points out that many hawks within the GOP have already complained about the choice of Zoellick to head what the Romney campaign calls the “readiness project,” noting that Zoellick has favored more engagement with China.

“He understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps,” says Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute.

Zoellick fought bitterly with the neoconservatives during the Bush administration. In his 2007 memoir about his time in the administration, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, wrote about how Zoellick was often stymied when he served as deputy secretary of state to Condoleezza Rice. “I was not privy to all, or perhaps even many, of the details, but no one believes Zoellick enjoyed his time as deputy secretary very much, or his relationship with Rice,” wrote Bolton.

One hint to Ryan’s overall view on foreign policy can be found in his 2011 speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society. In that speech Ryan sounded a theme first coined by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer that the decline of America as a world power is a choice not an inevitability.

Ryan, however, differed from many foreign-policy hawks in his speech by identifying America’s mounting debt as a threat to the nation’s ability to field the military necessary to remain a world power. “A safer world and a more prosperous America go hand in hand,” he said. “Economic growth is the key to avoiding the kind of painful austerity that would limit our ability to generate both hard and soft power.”

This element of Ryan’s worldview was heralded by Jamie Fly, the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank created in 2009 that has supported President Obama’s initial surge in Afghanistan, but criticized his inaction in Syria, his withdrawal from Iraq, and his recent course readjustment for Afghanistan. “Ryan seems to understand that despite tough times here at home, America cannot give up its traditional leadership role in the world,” Fly said. “His worldview seems to be very Reaganesque, which fits nicely with Governor Romney's foreign-policy vision of a strong military to deter threats and keep the peace in an increasingly uncertain world.”