State of the Union Buster
Scott Walker’s deeply unimpressive thoughts about foreign policy make everything about crushing organized labor. Here's why even the Gipper would find that ridiculous.
The U.S. presidential election might be 20 months away, but it will be hard for anyone to top Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for the “Dumbest Statement About Foreign Policy” in the 2016 campaign.
According to Walker, the “most consequential foreign-policy decision” of his lifetime was President Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire the country’s air-traffic controllers in 1981. The reason: It “sent a powerful message around the world that this guy was serious,” said Walker. “It told our allies, if he said he was with you, he was with you, and it told our adversaries not to mess with us.”
It’s an interesting statement for Walker to make. After all, he was born in 1967, which means he has lived through the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ended the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon’s opening to China, the use of force against Iraq in 1990 and 2003 (and countless other places in the last 48 years), Reagan’s decision to provide tacit support to the campaigns of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union during the mid-1980s, and even the order to kill Osama bin Laden.
Apparently those decisions were mere child’s play compared with firing a bunch of unionized white-collar workers.
And if Reagan’s domestic actions “sent a powerful message around the world,” a lot of people didn’t get the memo. Reagan’s move didn’t stop communist Poland from declaring martial law just a few months later in response to persistent pro-democracy strikes by the Solidarity labor movement. It didn’t stop terrorists from blowing up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. It didn’t stop the Soviet Union from escalating the war in Afghanistan, shooting down a South Korean airliner in 1983, or funding communist governments — and insurgencies — in Central America and the Caribbean.
Walker has even claimed that “documents released from the Soviet Union” show that Soviet leaders “started treating [Reagan] more seriously” after the firing of the air-traffic controllers. But according to PolitiFact’s interview of Jack Matlock, who was Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987, “It’s utter nonsense.” Suffice to say, no such documents are known to exist.
I asked Daryl Press, a professor at Dartmouth College and the man who literally wrote the book on credibility in foreign affairs, what he thought of Walker’s assertion. “Absurd,” said Press. “What Walker is saying is that the old guys in the Politburo, who as boys had stood up to the murderous Wehrmacht, crumbled when they realized that Reagan was tough enough to fire a labor union.”
From Press’s perspective, Walker is demonstrating the “tendency to identify a U.S. action — something we view as either (lamentably) weak or (admirably) strong — and then identify a corresponding adversary act and assume the two were related.” But in reality, Press told me, our “enemies are not too focused on our past actions. Rather, they do the sensible thing: They expect we’ll act strongly if it suits our interest now, and we won’t if it doesn’t.”
The simple fact is that not only did most of America’s adversaries probably not pay much attention to Reagan’s decision on the air-traffic controllers’ strike, but it had zero verifiable impact on their assessment of Reagan and what he might do during a later crisis.
Now, of course, Walker is hardly the first — nor will he be the last — Republican politician to overly mythologize Reagan. Indeed, in 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney claimed the Iranian hostage crisis ended because Reagan, before even being sworn into office, scared the Iranians to let the hostages go. They understood, said Romney, that “Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was.” That too was a “Pants on Fire” lie.
The bigger problem with Walker’s claim is what it says about his already thin grasp of foreign policy. According to a recent Washington Post article, he’s being advised by Elliott Abrams and Marc Thiessen, whose claim to fame is being a public defender of waterboarding. Walker even had Thiessen co-write his 2013 book, Unintimidated, which seems to be an appropriate tag line for his simplistic worldview.
Even worse is that Walker seems to confuse taking strong, uncompromising stands with good foreign-policy decision-making. “Foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a Ph.D. or talking to Ph.Ds. It’s about leadership,” says Walker. The Washington Post quoted one Walker donor arguing, “Everything can be complicated with layer upon layer of nuance added on until you paralyze yourself,” he said. “It just comes down to knowing the difference between right and wrong and acting accordingly.”
It’s a view that Walker has clearly embraced. At the recent CPAC conference in Washington, when asked about how he would deal with the Islamic State, Walker told the conservative gathering, “We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil, but … freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world.… If I can take on a hundred thousand protesters, I can do the same across the world.” The latter reference was to the 2011 protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol, in Madison, in opposition to Walker’s efforts to take away collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin’s public-sector unions.
Apparently for Walker, standing up to unions — like his hero Reagan did — is the ultimate mark of foreign-policy leadership. It helps to have a bit of convenient amnesia in this regard: Reagan repeatedly championed the right of workers to organize (in Poland, for example), and he had a bit of personal history in this as well, as the first head of the Screen Actors Guild to lead that union in a work stoppage.
But for Walker, the symbolic elements of American presidential power — i.e., sending messages, showing determination — appear to be of greater importance than the messy details that one might learn from talking to actual experts, even those with advanced degrees. “Knowing the difference between right and wrong” sounds like a useful way to think about the world, but when the choices facing presidents are often between “bad” and “slightly less bad,” it doesn’t provide much useful guidance. If anything, it’s profoundly unhelpful because it precludes embracing the kind of messy, imperfect compromises that are essential to being an effective foreign-policy president.
Reagan might be the leader whom Walker most admires, but the governor is looking at the wrong lessons from the Gipper’s tenure. Indeed, Walker could learn a lot from Reagan’s decision to cut his losses in Beirut in 1983 and not send more Americans to die in a conflict that was tangential to U.S. national security concerns. Or he could take heed from Reagan’s decision, against the advice of close aides, to offer political cover for Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform agenda — even though it ran counter to Reagan’s strong anti-communist views. He could even pay attention to the many times that Reagan embraced compromises at home on everything from taxes to Social Security.
While Reagan may have been an uneven foreign-policy president, he was best when he was demonstrating the kind of pragmatic “leadership” so frequently disdained by the modern Republican Party.
In the end, what is perhaps most disconcerting about Walker’s comments is that at the same time that Republicans regularly warn about the complex dangers facing the United States around the world, the man who has risen, at least temporarily, to the top of the 2016 pack has barely traveled outside the United States, has a threadbare grasp of foreign policy, derides actual international expertise, has surrounded himself with foreign-policy second-stringers, and yet believes that “[w]e cannot afford to be passive spectators while the world descends into chaos.”
Fifteen years ago, the Republicans nominated another two-term governor who had little foreign-policy experience, was forced to take a crash course to get up to speed on international affairs, regularly derided formal education, had a fairly well-defined sense of “right and wrong,” and came to believe that America had a responsibility to not be a passive spectator, but rather spread the gift of democracy across the globe.
Hey, America, how’d that work out?
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