- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
Thursday night’s spirited vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan featured a lot of talk about the thresshold for U.S. military intervention in global conflicts. In one of the most telling exchanges, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the candidates what was worse: yet another war in the Middle East, or a nuclear-armed Iran?
Ryan replied that "we can’t live" with a nuclear Iran that could spark a nuclear arms race in the region and be emboldened to sponsor terrorism and threaten Israel. Biden retorted that "war should always be the absolute last resort," adding that the administration’s sanctions against Iran are working and that the president "doesn’t bluff." The answers seemed to suggest that a Romney-Ryan administration would have fewer qualms about initiating a military conflict with Iran if Tehran appeared to be on the verge of weaponization.
The topic came up again when the conversation turned to the Syrian crisis, as Ryan declared that he would only send U.S. troops into the country if it was necessary to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. It was at this point that Raddatz asked the Republican vice presidential candidate a broader question: "What’s your criteria for intervention?" Ryan responded that U.S. national security interests had to be at stake:
RYAN: In Syria?
RYAN: What is in the national interests of the American people.
RADDATZ: How about humanitarian interests?
RYAN: What is in the national security of the American people. It’s got to be in the strategic national interests of our country.
RADDATZ: No humanitarian?
RYAN: Each situation will — will come up with its own set of circumstances, but putting American troops on the ground? That’s got to be within the national security interests of the American people.
RADDATZ: I want to — we’re — we’re almost out of time here.
RYAN: That means like embargoes and sanctions and overflights, those are things that don’t put American troops on the ground. But if you’re talking about putting American troops on the ground, only in our national security interests.
The response raises the question: What was Paul Ryan’s stance on the military intervention in Libya — one of the most recent examples of these kinds of dilemmas? We know that Ryan has been critical of the Obama administration’s response to the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last month (a topic that came up again at the start of Thursday night’s debate). But we know much less about Ryan’s position on the Libyan conflict in 2011. It turns out that in June of that year, the congressman elected not to join many of his Republican colleagues in the House in voting for a bill that would have blocked funding for certain elements of the Libya operation. He also voted against a largely symbolic resolution to authorize the mission.
"Today’s vote indicates that the President has failed to adequately explain our mission in Libya either to Congress or to the American people," Ryan said in a statement. "While I do not support cutting off funding for the operations that are already underway, today’s vote of no-confidence should send a strong message to the President: He owes the American people and Congress a clear strategy."
Indeed, it was strategy and procedure — not the national security rationale behind the operation — that constituted Ryan’s critique of the Obama administration after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed in October. Ryan called Qaddafi a "butcher of his people" and expressed hope that Libyans would "build a successful, civil society, where individual rights are recognized." And then he lashed out at the White House, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:
"I don’t have a problem with helping prevent genocide, but I do have a problem with they way in which they went about this operation," he said.
Asked what that problem was, he answered: "Didn’t go to Congress, didn’t ask for authority, the leading-from-behind strategy at NATO I think was very strange, and I don’t think they had a mission well-defined. I think they jumped into this mission without having a real endgame in mind and it lasted a lot longer than anybody thought it would last."
On Thursday night, of course, Ryan made clear that he would apply his national-security-interest litmus test only when deciding whether to put U.S. troops on the ground, which never happened in Libya. But it’s still worth pointing out that when President Obama decided to intervene in the country, Ryan criticized the manner in which the administration carried out the mission, not the premise of intervening militarily to prevent genocide.