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Paul Ryan's Foreign Policy: Six Questions About A Thin Record

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Presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), pauses during a campaign rally Aug. 14. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), pauses during a campaign rally Aug. 14. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Not since Bill Clinton selected Al Gore to be his running mate have the presidential and vice presidential candidates for a major party had as little foreign policy experience and expertise as the duo of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

"My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos," said George H.W. Bush, during that 1992 campaign of Clinton-Gore.

But even by the standards of Clinton-Gore -- Gore at least served on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees -- exceptionally little is known about the collective world view of the current presumptive Republican ticket. Even if you pore over the written record, Rep. Ryan's (R-Wis.) vision for America in the world remains opaque.

Indeed, over the past decade, Ryan has largely avoided inserting himself into complicated foreign policy matters, often responding with broad platitudes on some of the most pressing issues of the moment. Ryan's policy wheelhouse has been budgetary, and he's dutifully remained right there.

That changes now that he's been tapped to serve as Romney's running mate. Over the next few weeks, analysts will attempt to glean what they can from the few occasions Ryan has discussed foreign policy. In due course they will likely try to answer the following questions.

1. Just how in the dark is Ryan when it comes to foreign policy?

Last June, when Ryan was looking to shore up his foreign policy bona fides, he chose a small, little known educational group called the Alexander Hamilton Society as the arena for his first major foreign affairs address.

"Some of you might be wondering why the House Budget Committee chairman is standing here addressing a room full of national security experts about American foreign policy," Ryan began in his speech. "What can I tell you that you don't already know? The short answer is, not much."

The idea that a budget wonk doesn't have to concern himself with foreign policy is a theme that Ryan seems willing to good-naturedly embrace.

He also did so in 2009, when he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations. There, he repeatedly made a point of downplaying his credentials, emphasizing that Congress's role on foreign policy is secondary to the president's, and joking that he is usually more comfortable in his "cocoon" at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. "You're the experts," he reminded the group.

2. Can Ryan learn on the fly?

On the subjects where Ryan has chosen to focus his energy and brainpower, including some involving international affairs, he shows signs of being preternaturally adept -- and focused.

Ryan's two committee assignments, Ways & Means and Budget (where he eventually rose to chairman), both include foreign policy components: at Ways & Means he worked on trade pacts, and on the Budget committee he helped oversee defense spending.

A review of hearing transcripts at the Budget committee shows that during the Bush years, Ryan was sometimes the only Republican to show up at hearings about the spiraling costs of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When it was his turn to question the unfortunate Department of Defense official sent to defend the department's practices, Ryan whipped out an array of PowerPoint slides, and grilled the witness on the details of acquisition and budgeting.

In the few appearances he's made before foreign policy groups, he's had little trouble handling an array of complex topics.

At the Council on Foreign Relations event, for instance, experts from a wide variety of international specialties (a World Bank official, a staffer at U.S. Central Command) repeatedly challenged him on obscure components of American trade policy, as well as security and visa procedures that affected businessmen working abroad. He sometimes deflected the questions but ultimately had little trouble coming up with both specific and nuanced answers.

"This is not my committee assignment, so usually you specialize these things in your committees," Ryan said at one point, when asked about the consequences of a little-known visa program called NSEERS, which sometimes impedes the ability of Middle Eastern businessmen to enter the United States.

Then he gamely offered a sophisticated answer:

"But I've sat behind the Foreign Service officers and watched this take place, so I've sort of seen this system and how it works. My thinking is, look, this new generation of young people in these countries are going to be the future. They're going to be the ones who are -- you know, they're the moderates. And I would much rather have them come to Ann Arbor and Madison instead of anywhere else. That is such a huge boon to us, and they -- I hear it all the time when I go over there. So I think, yeah, we have to move fast before impressions are cast in stone and before they stop sending their kids over here."

In an interview this May with the Washington Examiner, Ryan said he has read "all of Bernard Lewis's books" about the Middle East.

3. From what we can tell, is Ryan from the realist or neocon wing of the Republican Party?

When Ryan spoke before the Hamilton Society, he delivered a vision of America's role in the world that hit all of the neoconservative high notes:

"We must lead," he said, in a section of his speech on his vision of American "exceptionalism." "And a central element of maintaining American leadership is the promotion of our moral principles –- consistently and energetically -– without being unrealistic about what is possible for us to achieve."

Re-reading the speech recently, the Wall Street Journal's foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens, saw a "neocon manifesto."

"It's a full embrace of American exceptionalism and a robust internationalism in promoting freedom, human rights, and an open trading system," said Stephen Flanagan, the Henry Kissinger chair in diplomacy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Consistent with the freedom agenda, he's strong on [free trade agreements] with Korea, Colombia, and Panama and engagement with Brazil and India as rising democracies that share many U.S. interests."

Many of Ryan's most vocal supporters and promoters since he was selected as Romney's running mate have included those who see in him hints of neoconservative ambition.

"Unlike a lot of fiscal conservatives, one of the great things about Paul Ryan is he is not omni-directionally a budget cutter," said AEI's Danielle Pletka, in an interview with the Daily Beast. "He understands the primary role of the federal government is the national defense and not the handing out of food stamps."

The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes reported on Twitter that for the "past few months," Ryan has been receiving foreign policy briefings from some of the neocon academics-in-chief, including Elliott Abrams, and Fred and Kim Kagan.

"Seeing him around AEI and other places, he's not one of these foreign policy conservatives that says, 'Well, we just can't do this anymore. In order to get our fiscal house in order we can't do what we used to do,'" said Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at AEI and the co-founder of the Hamilton Society, using language that disassociated Ryan from both foreign policy realists and Tea Party budget cutters. "There's this general sense of optimism that we can -- not only can we, but we have to."

It's a view shared even by Ryan's detractors.

"Ryan's tradition falls in line with the radical Jeffersonians who saw the French-adopted 'credo' and exultation of human rights, along with a vigorous effort to expand them to other European states, as fundamentally part of the American moral vision," wrote Daniel Trombly, in a critical assessment of Ryan's Hamilton Society speech.

"On foreign policy, Paul Ryan truly is a product of the era of George W. Bush," added the American Conservative's Daniel Larison this week.

4. How much of that neoconservative rhetoric is just bluster?

Despite the tough talk, Ryan has often pursued sensible, reality-based solutions.

His record on defense spending is a little bit all over the map: while in 2011 he called for significant reductions in defense spending, more recently he has endorsed carving out a defense exception to spending cuts, as Romney has. He has also lately emerged as one of the more vocal opponents of the consequences of "sequestration," the process by which the defense budget would be slashed wholesale if Congress cannot reach a balanced budget agreement.

But military budgeting experts say that a close look at the parts of Ryan's budget proposals that really matter -- the next year or so, rather than farther out, where projections get hazier -- shows a spending line that is largely in step with Obama's requests, which means limited cuts.

"If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, I suspect Paul Ryan is a debt hawk, and will go right back to that, including on defense spending," said Matthew Leatherman, an analyst at the Stimson Center.

Meanwhile, during the Bush years, Ryan's obsession when it came to defense spending wasn't about the kind of across-the-board cuts that the Tea Party favors -- and military planners find incomprehensible. Instead, it was about ensuring transparency and proper accounting: he wanted to make sure the Pentagon wasn't sneaking standard, annual costs into special supplemental war requests, in order to undersell their budget.

And while it's true that he has long spoken of America's role in the world in terms of power and military force, he's also called for "a healthy humility about the extent of our power to control events in other regions."

When the war in Afghanistan began, back in October 2001, for instance, Ryan defended it in an interview as a specific response to a specific attack, and contrasted it with Vietnam. He has since criticized Obama's withdrawal plan as potentially leaving the troops "shorthanded."

"You have to remember we were attacked," Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "This is not an instance where we're asserting ourselves somewhere across the world like Vietnam."

Ryan supported the war in Iraq, and the 2007 troop surge that was intended as a last ditch effort to regain control of the spiraling mission there.

But he also put a limit on the surge -- "I personally give this three to six months," he said at the time. He later made a point of attending a House hearing -- as a non-member of the committee conducting it -- with then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American troops in Iraq, to critically assess the progress of the surge.

After the hearing, Ryan put out a statement saying that he wished the drawdown of American forces could happen faster than Petraeus proposed, although he accepted the necessity of the general's timeline.

"It's clear the troops are succeeding, but it is unclear the Iraqi government is working," Ryan added.

5. Is Ryan's foreign policy going to be entirely defined by his economic and budgetary outlook?

When Ryan spoke at the Hamilton Society, he quickly turned his talk toward his bailiwick, economics:

"If there's one thing I could say with complete confidence about American foreign policy, it is this: Our fiscal policy and our foreign policy are on a collision course; and if we fail to put our budget on a sustainable path, then we are choosing decline as a world power," he said. "Years of ignoring the real drivers of our debt have left us with a profound structural problem. In the coming years, our debt is projected to grow to more than three times the size of our entire economy. This trajectory is catastrophic."

It's a recurring theme for Ryan -- when asked about the world, he prefers to answer with domestic policy.

Indeed, just a few days after 9/11, as the country focused almost entirely on the affairs of the world, Ryan was a solitary voice seeking to return some attention to more local matters.

"Clearly, foreign policy has gone to the top of the list," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sept. 19 of that year. "But it shouldn't have to come totally at the expense of our domestic agenda."

When Ryan spoke at CFR, much of his discussion about America's leadership in the world was cast in terms of monetary and trade policy -- how the U.S. could use economics, rather than the military, to export its values around the world.

And he also emphasized how the opposite is true: the more that countries like China hold American debt, the less the U.S. can influence those countries towards human rights and democracy.

"They're our creditors now," Ryan joked at one point. "How can you advance human rights with your banker?"

6. Does Ryan have any extensive international experience?

Ryan has at least traveled far more widely than another vice presidential candidate with limited foreign policy experience.

The Wisconsin press does a particularly good job of keeping an eye on the foreign junkets taken by the members of its congressional delegation, which means there's a healthy record of where Ryan has travelled and who paid for it.

In February 2006, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviewed the travel records of members of the delegation for the previous 12 months and found that Ryan's privately funded travel budget had been the second highest behind then Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner: nearly $24,000.

In that time, Ryan went on trips (usually with his wife) to Baltimore, Florida, Aspen, and Israel, where he told reporters he took in more "than I could have learned in a hundred congressional hearings."

Later that year, he also visited India and Vietnam, "with a stopover in Greece," according to the Journal Sentinel . "I think every member of Congress should go to India to see for themselves the kind of global challenges and opportunities that face us as India emerges," Ryan said later.

Other big-ticket trips he has taken included a week-long voyage in April 2004 to Qatar, Dubai and Bahrain, sponsored by an organization called the Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation. According to the Madison Capital Times, Ryan's portion of the trip was the most expensive, costing the foundation over $18,100.

As a legislator, Ryan also went on official congressional delegations to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sometimes his vacation plans were much more mundane. In the winter of 2009, while legislators spread out on junkets across the Middle East, Ryan joined other members of the Wisconsin delegation in Madison for a ceremony for 3,000 state Army National Guardsmen being deployed to Iraq, according to the Journal Sentinel.

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