Daniel W. Drezner

My one question for the GOP presidential candidates

My one question for the GOP presidential candidates

Over at CFR, James Lindsay pushes back on my previous GOP debate post on the general worlthlessness of foreign policy campaign promises:

Dan’s argument would be more persuasive if his example [of Bush not honoring his campaign promise of a humble foreign policy] proved his point. It doesn’t. Candidate Bush said he didn’t like nation building, and President Bush tried to avoid doing it in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s one of the reasons both occupations went badly. Beyond that, Bush carried through on much of what he said during the 2000 campaign. He didn’t like the ABM treaty, so he withdrew the United States from it. He thought that the Clinton missile defense program was inadequate, so he ordered the construction of a more robust one. He expressed skepticism of treaties and international insititutions, said he intended to provide firm American leadership, and vowed that the U.S. military’s true mission was “to fight and win war.” Sound familiar? September 11 changed Bush’s foreign policy agenda, but it didn’t change the core of his worldview.

None of this is to say that campaign speeches and debates tell you everything you might like to know about a candidate’s foreign policy views. No debate question or stump speech can ever anticipate all the situations a president will face. Dan is certainly right that presidential candidates sometimes say things about foreign policy that they have no intention of doing, as looks to have been the case with Obama’s 2008 pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. And Dan is equally right that presidents sometimes repudiate the foreign policy promises they make on the campaign trail, as Bill Clinton famously did with his opposition to favored-nation-trading status for China and Barack Obama did on Guantánamo Bay. (Though both presidents reversed themselves only after they tried and failed to implement their campaign pledges.)

But campaign speeches and debates do provide insight into how candidates think about issues.

Lindsay’s point is well taken: candidates do say things that they wind up doing as president. My original point was intended to be narrower than that — presidents do not get politically damaged by reneging on foreign policy campaign promises the same way they do if they renege on domestic policy promises. But as a rough guideline to a candidates’ assumptions and style of foreign policy thinking, campaign speeches, essays, and yes, even debate responses can be useful.

Which is why, if I could ask one question at tonight’s debate, I’d like to ask each of the candidates exactly how their religious devotion guides their foreign policy thinking. Oh, hell, let’s be more specific — I’d like to ask Rick Perry exactly how, as president, his statement that, "as a Christian [I] have a clear directive to support Israel" will affect his direction of the nondenominational blood and treasure of the U.S. government in the Middle East.

This is important.  Walter Russell Mead recently blogged that "the Christianists haven’t got a prayer" in reasserting their former prominence in American society, and he’s by and large he’s correct in that assumption.  In terms of foreign policy, however, Perry’s language was something new in the post-9/11 world.   Slate’s William Saletan explains why

Whoa. That’s something George W. Bush never did. Bush never said he had a Christian duty to stand with Israel, because to say such a thing would have been stupid and dangerous. By framing U.S. foreign policy in terms of a religious alliance between Christians and Jews, Perry is validating the propaganda of Islamic extremists. He’s jeopardizing peace, Israel, and the United States.

Bush understood that the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 wanted a religious war. The key to defeating them wasn’t to wage that war, but to refuse it. That’s why Bush constantly praised Islam, emphasized American freedom of religion, and dismissed Osama Bin Laden as a renegade killer of Muslims….

Go back and look at Bush’s comments about Israel. In eight years, he never mentioned his Christianity as a basis for his policies there. He defended Israel as a democracy and an ally. When he mentioned Judaism and Christianity in this context, he always included Islam. "The Middle East is the birthplace of three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," Bush said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee a few months before 9/11. "Lasting peace in the region must respect the rights of believers in all these faiths." In 2007, Bush told Al Arabiya: "I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. … I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace." Again and again, Bush affirmed: "If you’re a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you’re equally American."

Perry has trashed this legacy. By declaring that "as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel," he has vindicated Bin Laden’s narrative. 

If the next president’s religious vision is going to be his primary source of guidance for conducting foreign policy in the Middle East, yeah, that’s something I’d like to know sooner rather than later.