Where GOP Candidates Stand on the Party's Key Foreign-Policy Divide

Ron Paul -- The Jealous Realist

"Don't get involved in these wars," the longtime Congressman from Texas bellowed during the August 11 Republican debate. Paul, a veteran who he served as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, decries reckless militarism and believes the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus has made the United States an "empire by any definition" that threatens liberty at home and abroad.

Paul is a longtime member of the legion of what I have called American "jealous guardians." The nation's jealous guardians -- present since the founding and in both parties -- are realists abroad to assure the nation is exceptional at home. While they understand the opportunities internationally, they agree that the nation's strength begins at home and want to ensure not just the security of the nation's borders but of the bold American Experiment. Paul fears the consequences, at home and abroad, of militarism, executive power, and international misadventures that often accompany an exceptionalist foreign policy.

Paul, as he noted in a 2007 Republican debate -- to wide criticism -- believes American global intervention has exposed the nation to "blowback," including the attacks of September 11. U.S. foreign policy since then has made its citizens less free by forcing them to pay and support "unconstitutional" wars. Paul, as with his libertarian approach to domestic affairs, advocates a restoration and preservation of the "American Republic" and a "policy of peace" based on free markets, free trade, and limited sanctioning.

Rick Perry - Thinks Exceptionalist, Talks Realist

Perry's foreign policy approach is a matter of some speculation, as the limited attention he has paid to national concerns during his governorship have tended toward federalist concerns. While it is too early to say whether his military background makes him a hawk -- one of his foreign policy advisors did tell Foreign Policy Magazine he was a "hawk internationalist" -- he tends to echo the militaristic exceptionalism that has been the Republican standard for much of the past decade. In fact, Perry has been meeting with neoconservative advisers, on the advice of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the lead up to his presidential campaign launch.

"We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies"

Still, Perry appreciates the realist winds blowing in this cash-strapped era: he said in a recent interview, "I think the most important thing that we can do from a foreign policy standpoint is to be strong economically." And in his recent speech to the VFW, which was less an exposition on the Perry foreign policy and more a collection of foreign policy fortune cookie platitudes, he said, "We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened."

But his exceptionalist roots show in his book, Fed Up!, which he stands by despite his staff's efforts to retract parts of the book. Published just ten months ago, well after the rise of the Tea Party and of Americans distaste with the state of the nation's foreign engagement, Fed Up! reads like an echo of President George W. Bush's 2002 "Axis of Evil" State of the Union address. Perry argues that U.S. military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are "critical to our safety here at home," describes Iran and North Korea as an "imminent threat," and warns that "dealing with terrorists whose mission is to kill as many Americans as possible" is the "seminal issue of our time." It's significant that a book dedicated to saving "America from Washington" declares the war on terror is the "seminal issue of our time," the only time the phrase is used in the book.

Perry bemoans that the "unsustainable fiscal wreck created after decades of Washington run amok is now threatening the government's paramount security function." He criticizes the cuts in such defense programs as the F-22, which former Defense Secretary Bob Gates fought to eliminate because it "does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict."

International opinion ranks low on exceptionalists' list of concerns. In his VFW speech, Perry bumper-stickered his feeling about international organizations: "We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies." And when confronted by opposition from Mexico, the International Court of Justice, the Obama administration, and three Supreme Court Justices to Texas's execution of Jose Medellín for rape and murder (these groups objected that Medellín was not informed of his right to consult the Mexican consulate, despite U.S. ratification of Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that guarantees exactly that), Perry sided with a Supreme Court majority and refused to stay the execution because he did not believe "international law should trump the laws of Texas."

Some observers have wondered whether the country would vote for another president with a Texan accent, or whether Perry sounds presidential enough. It is just as easy to ask whether the country is ready for another four years of Bush and Cheney foreign policy.

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John A. Gans Jr. studies international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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