The VP Debate Cinches It: Paul Ryan Is Unqualified to Step In as POTUS

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On foreign policy, the transcript shows what many missed on TV: he is totally out of his depth, with little to guide him but ideology.

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Congressman Paul Ryan made three good points Thursday during foreign policy portions of the VP debate. He's correct that the Obama Administration shamefully misled Americans about the attack on our embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Security there was insufficient. And it is hypocritical when Team Obama criticizes Team Romney for wanting to extend the presence of American troops in Iraq. President Obama himself pressed Iraqi officials to permit American troops to stay longer.

Unfortunately, Ryan failed to call the Obama Administration on any of the most egregious flaws in its foreign policy, because Republicans agree with most of them. Instead, he talked a lot of nonsense. During the broadcast, it passed by too quickly to attract much notice. His delivery is much smoother than Sarah Palin managed four years back. But he doesn't know any more than she did.

Just check out the transcript -- it's much less forgiving than watching Ryan on video*. The performance is especially damning in a candidate with so little proof of competence, who faces added pressure to demonstrate basic knowledge that might be assumed in a more seasoned leader.

The juxtaposition didn't help either.

For all his charisma, Ryan has radically less foreign policy experience than his counterpart on the Democratic ticket. The disadvantage is magnified by the highly ideological nature of Republican foreign policy. Its specific judgments on the wisdom of the Iraq War and the desirability of interventionism are rejected by most Americans. And what GOP politicians refer to as guiding principles are often just simplistic talking points that fall apart under the most cursory scrutiny.

Democrats do a slightly better job acknowledging the complexity of geopolitics, but vastly overestimate how much their experts understand and their ability to forecast the effects of American intervention. In contrast, Republicans talk as if foreign policy decisions can all flow from abstract ideology. For them, geopolitical events unfold according to a simple, predictable model. Do you believe that America is an exceptional nation, that this must be an American century, that Iran cannot get a bomb, and that Israel is our closest ally? If so, everything will work out. It is a testament to the malleability of language that we now call this ideology "conservative."

Ryan almost certainly doesn't agree with all of what he said. For example, "We should always stand up for peace, for democracy, for individual rights." It seems innocuous enough, but it only takes a moment to see how that formulation is meant to elide all the tough choices real leaders must make. Should the United States stand up for individual rights if it requires more war and less peace? Should it champion more democracy in cases when the individual rights of minorities would suffer? Among voters, there is no disagreement about the desirability of all three goods, but to suggest that it's possible to stand up for all of them, always, is at best an evasion.

For Romney-Ryan, it is also a lie. If you intend, as they do, to keep something like our present relationship with Saudi Arabia, to have "no sunlight" between our positions and those of Israel, and to continue bombarding rural Pakistani communities with drone strikes, it is not possible to also "always" fight for peace, democracy, and individual rights. Breezily thoughtless mendacity like that isn't usually challenged, but that doesn't change the fact that Ryan routinely engages in it.

Of course, lots of politicians lie in that way. Where Ryan really distinguishes himself is the rest of the debate.

Here's a slightly more specific assertion he made:

...we should not be imposing these devastating defense cuts, because what that does when we equivocate on our values, when we show that we're cutting down on defense, it makes us more weak. It projects weakness. And when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us.

They're more brazen in their attacks...

To argue that Pentagon cuts are unwise is legitimate. But conflating those cuts with abandoning American values betrays a total misunderstanding of what American values actually are. Hint. They're far more enduring than a line item in the budget, and they're undiminished when defense contractors with powerful lobbyists get marginally less of the economic pie. There is, too, the fact that the adversary we're presently focused on fighting, Al Qaeda, is going to be intent on attacking us whether we spend 2 or 52 percent of our GDP on defense. That particular adversary is obviously eager to test us even if we project maximal strength.

Does Ryan understand that?

With all the talk from conservatives about President Obama's alleged "apology tour," a phenomenon they've fabricated, it was fascinating to see Ryan's answer in this exchange with the moderator:

RADDATZ: Mr. Ryan, I want to ask you about -- the Romney campaign talks a lot about no apologies. He has a book called called "No Apologies." Should the U.S. have apologized for Americans burning Korans in Afghanistan? Should the U.S. apologize for U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses?

RYAN: Oh, gosh, yes. Urinating on Taliban corpses? What we should not apologize for...

RADDATZ: Burning Korans, immediately?

RYAN: What -- what we should not be apologizing for are standing up for our values. What we should not be doing is saying to the Egyptian people, while Mubarak is cracking down on them, that he's a good guy and, in the next week, say he ought to go. What we should not be doing is rejecting claims for -- for calls for more security in our barracks, in our Marine -- we need Marines in Benghazi when the commander on the ground says we need more forces for security. There were requests for extra security; those requests were not honored.

So some apologies are okay after all.

Ryan says this as if President Obama has, on some occasion, apologized for standing up for American values. In fact, the statements that conservatives characterize as apologies consist of Obama acknowledging, though never actually apologizing for, instances when America fell short of its values. Bizarrely, Ryan goes on to talk as if America's shady relationship with Mubarak and its dearth of security in Libya are apt examples of apologizing for American values. It actually sounds as though Ryan thinks we owe the Egyptian people an apology, which is interesting. In terms of criticizing apologies, the answer makes no sense at all.

On Iran, it sure seems like Team Obama and Team Romney assert the same position: We want to resolve this peacefully; we can more credibly do that than the other guys; but we're also prepared to strike militarily because Iran getting nukes is unacceptable -- it won't happen on our watch. And by the way, we're totally cool with Israel, which is totally on the same page as us.They're attacking one another on the issue anyway.

Here's how Ryan does it:

When this administration says that all options are on the table, they send out senior administration officials that send all these mixed signals. And so, in order to solve this peacefully -- which is everybody's goal -- you have to have the ayatollahs change their minds. Look at where they are. They're moving faster toward a nuclear weapon. It's because this administration has no credibility on this issue. It's because this administration watered down sanctions, delayed sanctions, tried to stop us for putting the tough sanctions in place.  

An intelligent discussion of Iran and nuclear weapons would acknowledge that the actions of the ayatollahs are not in fact entirely or even predominantly governed by presidential signalling -- that lots of factors beyond our control, like the strategic value of having nukes, how impervious their program is to air strikes, actual damage done by sanctions, and their retaliatory ability, among many other substantive factors, shape the speed with which they seek a nuclear weapon.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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