Is the GOP’s next leader a defense hawk or a budget hawk?
Short of any last minute surprises, everything is in place for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to take over as the next speaker of the House — an often thankless job that will test the former Capitol Hill staffer’s ability to tame the fractured Republican conference and prevent another government shutdown.
As a budget hawk and chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan is better known for his staunch fiscal conservatism than his views on global affairs. Though he’s given numerous foreign policy speeches over the last decade, and was selected as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, the GOP’s leading national security hawks continue to question Ryan’s foreign affairs bonafides — and especially whether he will support an ever-expanding defense budget.
“That’s going to be one of the questions I’m going to ask him,” House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul told Foreign Policy earlier this month as party leaders scrambled to find a successor to outgoing Speaker John Boehner.
Ryan “seems to be a little more of a budget hawk than defense,” McCaul said. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I just think given the threats out there, the high threat environment, that’s going to be an important issue.”
By all accounts, on the principal foreign policy disputes of the day, Ryan cleaves to mostly conservative views and is a consistent advocate for expanded U.S. military involvement around the world. They include:
Ryan blames President Barack Obama for not offering more military aid to vetted, moderate rebel groups that are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. insists Assad must give up power, but the Obama administration has given only tepid military aid to rebel fighters on the ground for fear that U.S. weapons could fall into extremists’ hands or worse: the U.S. could get dragged further into another quagmire in the Middle East.
Ryan has signaled that giving weapons to moderate rebels earlier in the war, now in its fifth year, could have helped stem the ongoing violence before it roared out of control.
“[We] could’ve helped the Free Syrian Army at a much earlier stage in this crisis when it was so much easier to separate the good guys from the bad guys, and the president chose not to do that,” he told the National Interest in a wide-ranging interview last year. Critics counter that toppling Assad could create even more bloodshed and open more space for extremists to control.
Ryan has long criticized Obama’s withdrawal plans and said U.S. troops should not pull back “before we finish the job.” Obama reversed himself and last week announced a new strategy to keep thousands of American soldiers in Afghanistan even after he leaves office in 2017.
Ryan blames the president for not pushing Baghdad harder to allow U.S. forces to remain instead of withdrawing in 2011. “I believe we could’ve done more to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq as the military recommended,” he said.
Ryan last year told the Center for a New American Security the U.S. needs to increase NATO’s permanent military presence in Eastern Europe, which Moscow considers a provocation.
Ryan rejects the idea of so-called “isolationism,” and believes the U.S. must not shrink back from its global responsibilities. “A world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place,” he told the Alexander Hamilton Society in a June 2011 foreign policy address.
In all these ways, Ryan is a doctrinaire Republican. What makes defense hawks nervous, however, is a looming debate over military spending in the House that has pit fiscal conservatives against neoconservatives. It’s clear to few where Ryan will side.
This week, 102 GOP lawmakers, led by Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, penned a letter to Boehner and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy demanding an increase of the Pentagon’s base budget to at least $561 billion. Those lawmakers refused a measure known as a continuing resolution to continue the 2015 funding levels through the current fiscal year that began Oct.1.
However, the party’s fiscal conservatives want to cap domestic and defense spending.
Ryan has embraced the rhetoric of both camps.
“The reason it’s difficult to pin him down is because if he had ‘The Pen as King’ for a day, he’d craft a budget that is partially able to pay for higher defense budgets through entitlement reform. But that is not the Washington any of us live in,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Ideologically, Ryan has spent most of his career preaching the gospel of fiscal discipline rather than neoconservatism. But he’s long sought to accommodate defense hawks with proposals that grow the defense budget by typically $1 billion above what the president’s budget has been over the last several years.
“I would call him a budget hawk with defense hawk tendencies,” said Gordon Adams, a defense spending expert and an FP contributor.
Despite these competing tendencies, most expect Ryan to side with the defense hawks in the current debate — if only because more lawmakers support the military spending increase. The fiscal conservatives are represented by the House Freedom Caucus, which claims only 40 members despite its high profile. By contrast, 102 House lawmakers signed Turner’s letter to boost military spending.
“Ryan has to care about defense if he assumes the speakership,” said Eaglen.