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Paul Ryan: ‘I’m Not a Neocon’

The GOP’s young leader tries to chart a path between his party’s neoconservative wing and the views of Trump and Cruz.

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 03: Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., left, and former President George W. Bush attend a bust unveiling ceremony for former Vice President Dick Cheney in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall, December 3, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 03: Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., left, and former President George W. Bush attend a bust unveiling ceremony for former Vice President Dick Cheney in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall, December 3, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Speaker Paul Ryan distanced himself from what has been the leading strand of Republican foreign policy orthodoxy for more than a decade, arguing that the party’s neoconservatives should develop a more “limited view” of American military power after the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m not a necon,” he told a group of reporters Thursday following his first trip to the Middle East as speaker of the House. “You have to think of these conflicts as very long lasting big time commitments. They’re not quick and they’re not clean and they’re not antiseptic.”

Neoconservatives still dominate elite Republican foreign policy circles, but their preference for using military force to build democracy and bring about regime change has fallen out of favor following the end of the George W. Bush administration. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the leading GOP presidential candidates, have both espoused foreign policy positions that would shelve the loftier neoconservative agenda in favor of a harder-edged, but much more limited, American role on the world stage.

Ryan, who spent most of his career enmeshed in the minutia of budget battles rather than national security debates, has become a standard-bearer for the Republican Party brand as the presidential candidacies of Trump and Cruz steer the party into uncharted territory. Earlier this week, he ruled out a bid for the White House despite the pleading of senior party leaders concerned that the two frontrunners stand little chance of winning the presidency and could potentially also cost Republicans control of the Senate and House.

But on foreign policy, Ryan’s own views have never been totally clear. Like many Republicans, he frequently advocates for deeper defense spending and democracy promotion abroad — core tenets of neoconservatism. But he’s also a fiscal hawk and a skeptic of nation-building and regime-change efforts, as he explained on Thursday.

“You have to be realistic,” he said in his Capitol Hill office. “I was in Afghanistan pretty much as soon as the first [Congressional delegation] let us in. We are really good at winning the front end of these things but the backend has a huge tail that you have to be really committed to.”

He also warned against what he described as a “Fortress America” style of isolationism, saying the U.S. can’t “just pull back and think our oceans are going to save us.” That could have been an implicit jab at Trump, the GOP front runner, who has called for reducing America’s overseas military commitments in Europe and Asia and instead focus on rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

In his discussion with reporters, Ryan said the leaders from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that he met during last week’s trip peppered him with questions about President Barack Obama’s recent criticisms of Arab allies in the Atlantic  as well as Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States.

In the article, the president accused U.S. allies of being “free riders” who enjoy the benefits of America’s security umbrella without contributing themselves. He also said that regional adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to find a way to “share the neighborhood.”

“I can’t tell you how often I heard about that Atlantic article,” Ryan said. “It was quoted to me verbatim by heads of state…. It’s rattled our allies.”

Ryan said he sensed that “our allies needed reassurance that we … value these friendships and partnerships.”

When asked if Middle East leaders expressed concern about Trump’s rhetoric toward the region, Ryan said “Sure, I got it.”

Ryan held a press conference in December opposing Trump’s ban on Muslims, saying it did not represent “who we are as a party or a country.” Ryan said Arab officials noted the remarks. “People over there knew about it and thanked me for doing it … I didn’t realize people paid this close attention to it,” Ryan said.

On the trip overall, Ryan said he “spent half the time knocking down urban legends” believed by foreign leaders and dignitaries, such as the notion that the United States secretly supports the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist religious and social movement that briefly ran Egypt.

“They think we were against the popular will of the people of Egypt and we support the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Ryan. “My point is we support democracy … and that doesn’t mean we support the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Ryan said Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was “doing his best” to bring stability to the country after rising to power in a military coup. But he also criticized Sisi, whose regime was flagged for its increasingly authoritarian tactics in the State Department’s annual human rights report released Wednesday.

Ryan said he told the Egyptian leader that “you make it more difficult for us to be supportive of you when you have so many human rights violations.”

When asked to elaborate on his own foreign policy doctrine, Ryan pointed to a speech he gave to the Alexander Hamilton Society in 2011 warning about the dangers of a “world without U.S. leadership.” The address was originally plucked from obscurity when the Wall Street Journal’s hawkish columnist Bret Stephens heralded it as a masterful “neocon manifesto.” But on Thursday, Ryan made clear the neoconservative banner is not something he’d like to fly behind.

“Now neocon is singularly seen as AEI or whatever,” he said, referring to the American Enterprise Institute. “We have to be realistic about how far those values can be pushed and asserted on a case by case basis and we have to be realistic about our expectations of the promotion of those values.”

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