David Rothkopf

The Texan-to-English dictionary: Interpreting Rick Perry’s foreign-policy speech

Ramrod straight and offering up cringe-worthy physical and verbal salutes to his hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Republican presidential front-runner Governor Rick Perry yesterday offered a glimpse into what his foreign policy might look like were he to eventually become America’s commander in chief. Normally, such a speech would be an important ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

Ramrod straight and offering up cringe-worthy physical and verbal salutes to his hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Republican presidential front-runner Governor Rick Perry yesterday offered a glimpse into what his foreign policy might look like were he to eventually become America’s commander in chief.

Normally, such a speech would be an important event. It would be studied by voters and foreign leaders alike, each searching for clues about where the world’s most powerful nation might be heading. But in that respect, this speech was superfluous. From its very first stiff, nuance-lite, detail-free bursts of formulaic jingoism it triggered something back in our lizard brains, releasing whatever combination of neural chemicals it is that produces dread-filled déjà vu. Sweet Josephine, says your autonomic nervous system, I’ve seen this movie before! The Texas Chain Saw Foreign Policy! In fact, I just saw it and have been drinking heavily ever since trying to forget. I know what happens when you elect a Texas governor who thinks borrowed, not-fully-understood opinions and strong words make up for a nearly complete lack of foreign-policy experience.

However, for those of you who like to assess such performances at more than a reflexive level, let’s dig deeper. To do so we will have to first translate his remarks from Texan into English. Then, based on what we find we can determine whether this latest candidate is, like his predecessor from the Lone Star State, all hat and no cattle when it comes to foreign policy.

Let’s take a few key phrases:

  • "It’s a dangerous world that we live in today. As the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 approach, we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are, before they strike at home."

    In Texan and to plenty of members of yesterday’s VFW audience, this means "Let’s go kick some towel-head ass." It also means, "You don’t really trust this Obama to protect you from the bad guys, do you? We need a Republican back in there. We know it takes a few broken constitutional and human rights eggs to make an all-American foreign-policy omelet." Of course, since Obama presided over getting Osama bin Laden and doubling down in Afghanistan, you can’t go at him head-on regarding these issues. So Perry must speak in code with words like "renew our effort," which implies we’re not doing enough now without actually addressing what more might need to be done or just how we intend to take "the fight to the enemy." In more countries? In new ways? Naturally, no details offered.

  • "I do not believe that America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism. We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened and we should always look to build coalitions among the nations to protect the mutual interests of freedom-loving people."

    This is grade-school-level deftness. Does he mean adventurism like Obama in Libya? Or adventurism like Bush in Iraq? If you have to ask you are being naive either intentionally or because you can’t help it. Of course, he means Obama-style "adventurism." That’s why he used the "vital interest" line to echo the comments of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which asserted the United States had no such interests in Libya. It might say to some that he’s not going to immediately go off half-cocked into some war of choice — but don’t count on it. Name an American president who has not ordered U.S. troops off on a mission to some far-flung corner of the world since Herbert Hoover. In fact, this country has historically taken on so many half-cocked overseas adventures you would think all our secretaries of state were mohelim.

  • "It’s not in our interest to go it alone. We respect our allies and we must always seek to engage them in military missions. At the same time, we must be willing to act when it is time to act. We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies. And when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders."

    Maybe we ought to prepare ourselves for regular "I’m not W"-isms from Governor Perry. If all of them are this convoluted and transparent, however, it is unlikely they will do any good. The first bit of the statement — distancing himself from unilateralism — sounds like a disavowal. The second bit of the statement, however, sounds like the Bush excuse for unilateralism. It, however, has the added advantage of being a critique of Obama’s multilateralist impulses and his approach to the Libyan crisis. Frankly, "we respect our allies" is the foreign-policy equivalent of "I will respect you in the morning" — especially when it is coupled with a denigration of international institutions and the command capabilities of our allies. In fact, the thrust of this statement is really that while Perry may not be W 2.0, he is, in fact, a Cheney-ist. We’ll go it alone, and we basically think the only thing allies are good for is following our orders.

  • [Perry’s father, a World War II veteran] "helped liberate millions from tyranny. When he came home, he didn’t seek claim or credit. He just wanted a little peace and freedom, just farm a little corner of land in Paint Creek, Texas."

    This is what we call in Texas "hokum." Get used to it. There’s going to be plenty of wholesome, Hallmark-card folksiness on Perry’s road to realizing his grand vision of taking over the government in order to make it inconsequential. Of course, take a little hokum, mix it up with broad generalities, and you do end up with a foreign-policy speech that would be inconsequential did it not offer such vivid flashbacks to a prior "small-government" Republican from Texas. You remember him? The one who made government (and federal deficits) bigger than ever while overseeing the most disastrous foreign policy in U.S. history?

While these subtexts and echoes of the Bush years may give you the willies, there is one set of people who love them. That’s the boys and girls in the White House. They love the ascendancy of Rick Perry more than they love lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. Because they know how to run against the Bush record. They know that the one candidate guaranteed to be weaker than this president is his predecessor. As one canny former White House official (yes, a Democrat, I’ll admit it) said to me, "All they have to do with Perry is dust off those old 2008 Obama campaign posters and replace the word "HOPE" with "FEAR." They know they can go after Perry for producing "fear you can believe in."

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola