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Paul Ryan’s Definitely-Not-Presidential Middle East Trip

Ryan continues to reject calls to enter the 2016 race even as he bolsters his foreign policy creds to contrast with President Obama.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) addresses the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference at the Verizon Center March 21, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) addresses the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference at the Verizon Center March 21, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As Republicans back home whip up whispers, rumors, and entreaties for House Speaker Paul Ryan to swoop into the 2016 presidential race and save the GOP from tearing itself apart at an increasingly-likely contested convention, the Wisconsin congressman is on his first trip abroad as his party’s highest-elected official. With an itinerary of Middle East stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, such a trip seems somewhat, well … presidential.

With dimming chances for significant legislative achievements this year and a battle for the top of the Republican ticket looming ever larger, Ryan has been increasingly pushed to weigh in. On Tuesday, Ryan’s home state delivered a huge boost to the presidential prospects of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is increasingly seen by GOP leaders as the most viable alternative to Donald Trump’s candidacy. Cruz won Wisconsin’s primary election by double-digits, 48 percent to Trump’s 35 percent.

Ryan says his role is neither rescuer nor referee. Yet he’s using his first trip abroad to draw an explicit contrast with President Barack Obama’s “neglectful” foreign policy, particularly toward Middle East partners such as Israel.

“Nothing has changed — he’s not running for president, he’s not seeking the nomination,” Ryan spokesman Doug Andres told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. “Speaker Ryan is focused on restoring traditional alliances that have been neglected under this administration and putting forward a vision of what U.S. foreign policy should look like in the future.”

While Israel is a popular stop for politicians of both parties, Ryan’s choosing it for his first is an intentional dig at Obama, who has had an at times icy relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama expressed frustration with Netanyahu, as well as Mideast Arab partners such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Obama administration officials and anonymous Israeli officials recently traded barbs in the press about who-snubbed-whom over a White House meeting with Netanyahu. Shortly after, at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting in Washington last month, Ryan announced the Middle East trip.

“We have international terrorism that is threatening the civilized world. It’s threatening us. They’re coming at Israel, but they’re ultimately coming for us,” Ryan said Monday in an interview with the Times of Israel. “So we are partners in this war on terror, radical Islamic terrorism. Israel is an indispensable ally in that.”

Almost seven years after Obama’s famed Cairo speech, Ryan also spoke of developing “a generational strategy about winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world.” He reiterated oft-repeated criticism that the Obama administration doesn’t have a strategy to defeat the Islamic State, “let alone how do we prevent the 5-year-old in Pakistan from becoming a radical.”

Still, his call for “a coalition of governments in moderate nations” to not only defeat the Islamic State but prevent radicalization is largely indistinguishable from Obama’s.

While intended to serve as a rebuke to Obama, Ryan’s trip and tone also inevitably contrast the House speaker with Trump, the still-Republican front-runner.

Ryan has criticized Trump for his rhetoric and expressed some frustration with the billionaire businessman working crosswise against the mainstream Republican agenda. “We have to be more than just an opposition party. We have to be a proposition party,” Ryan has said consistently. But he’s also said he’ll support Trump if he’s chosen as the nominee.

Though Trump’s own AIPAC speech drew applause, the pro-Israel lobby’s leaders formally admonished his criticism of Obama. Trump’s sizable loss in Wisconsin follows several weeks of controversy, including widely criticized statements on other candidates’ wives and abortion as well as a demonstrated lack of substance on foreign policy, and concerted efforts from the “Never Trump” campaign of anti-Trump Republicans.

Eliot Cohen, a prominent GOP national security expert and former State and Defense Department official, said he’d “be delighted” if Ryan would throw his name in the race if Trump or another candidate isn’t able to reach the required 1,237 candidates before the July GOP convention in Cleveland. Cohen is one of the main architects of a letter in which more than 50 Republican foreign policy experts expressed their concerns about Trump as a commander in chief.

“This guy is just completely unacceptable,” Cohen said of Trump in a recent interview. “Cruz’s predisposition seems to be more narrowly nationalistic, whereas [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio was more ideology. … Paul Ryan is really right in the middle.”

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who dropped out of the GOP presidential primary in December, said Ryan “isn’t a viable option.” Graham is so adamantly opposed to a potential Trump nomination that he’s endorsed Cruz, whom he openly acknowledges is a last choice.

“I take Paul at his word: I don’t think that’ll work,” Graham told reporters Tuesday. “Paul’s a great guy, a great speaker, a great candidate for president — I just don’t see how you can bring somebody in who wasn’t in the original group who went through the process and expect anything other than a disaster.”

Nevertheless, Ryan will be front and center at the convention — at the least, presiding over it as its chairman.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Stringer

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