Rick Perry's Biggest Advantage in 2016

The governor is establishing his credentials in a surprising area: foreign policy.


Texas Governor Rick Perry quietly traveled to Europe last week to assert his foreign-policy credentials. He got what he was looking for—but in an unexpected way.

Perry planned to visit the United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, and Ukraine. He was to meet business and energy groups, confer with Ukrainian political leaders, pay his respects to the victims of the Second World War in Auschwitz and Warsaw, and deliver two major speeches in England and Poland. But he cut his trip short after the British leg to return home and oversee his state’s response to the Ebola infection, which had already killed one Liberian visitor and sickened two nurses in Dallas, stoked public panic, and forced President Obama to cancel campaign stops.

Yet a noteworthy development got lost in the frenzy over Ebola. The speeches Perry prepared for his trip to Europe announced the Republican governor’s entry into the 2016 presidential contest as a national-security stalwart—an alternative to the neo-isolationist approach championed by Senator Rand Paul. Despite all the media attention Paul’s views have received, most Republicans continue to espouse a more traditional hardline policy. The market niche Perry is eyeing will be a crowded one in 2016. Yet he starts with two big advantages in this contest—and, during his European tour, he hinted at the potential for one more.

The first advantage is that unlike many Washington-based competitors for the foreign-policy-hawk vote, Perry has not left any fingerprints on the budget plans that are cutting the Army and Marines to their smallest size since 1940. Senator Marco Rubio can credibly say that he opposed the defense cuts all along, but Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan voted for the 2011 sequester deal. Perry’s fellow Texan Ted Cruz has championed even bigger spending cuts that would inevitably impinge on defense spending.

The second advantage is that unlike Rubio, Governor Chris Christie, and—most relevantly—former Governor Jeb Bush, Perry can assert distance from the unpopular pieces of the George W. Bush foreign-policy legacy by virtue of his own famously adversarial relationship with Bush and his Texas team. In 2010, Karl Rove and other former Bush insiders backed a primary challenge by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison against Perry’s bid for a third term as governor.

In London, Perry took another important step toward establishing his national-security bona fides. In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute, which I attended, and in his canceled Warsaw speech, the governor championed an assertive American foreign policy against ISIS in the Middle East and Vladimir Putin in Eastern Europe, while calling European governments to account for their weak response to anti-Semitic attacks. “Forbearance in the face of vicious ideas and conduct is not tolerance. It is weakness,” he told his audience. Perry got in political trouble during the presidential primaries in 2012 by seeming to equivocate on illegal immigration to the United States. In London in 2014, he found his voice:

In the nations of the West today, we have many Muslims who live in the spirit in which they or their parents were first welcomed. They immigrated in search of an open, tolerant, peaceful way of life. And why? Usually because they had seen the exact opposite in the countries they left behind.

When they look abroad and see the merciless crimes of ISIS and the like they react as some leading British Muslims have done in each case, with unreserved condemnation. They know barbarism when they see it. They are people of conscience and character, and whether it’s London, England, or Dallas, Texas, such men and women are right where they belong, and the equals of any other subject or citizen. ...

But to every extremist, it has to be made clear: We will not allow you to exploit our tolerance, so that you can import your intolerance. We will not let you destroy our peace with your violent ideas. If you expect to live among us, and yet plan against us, to receive the protections and comforts of a free society, while showing none of its virtues or graces, then you can have our answer now: ‘No, not on our watch!’

You will live by exactly the standards that the rest of us live by. And if that comes as jarring news: Then welcome to civilization.

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama traveled to Berlin to explain his vision of the world. That speech expressed criticism of the United States and its government. “I know my country has not perfected itself,” Obama observed. “At times, we’ve struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.” Obama spoke of terrorism in highly abstract terms, as “networks” that drew support from a “well of extremism.” He did not dwell on what the terrorists believed or why they might believe it. He insisted that the values that would overcome terrorism would be values located in the Muslim world itself, not the Western world: “If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope,” he said.

Perry’s London speech, by comparison, contrasted the ideology of the Islamic State with specifically Western values. The defining characteristic of the values of the United States and Europe, Perry stressed, is that they “are outward-looking ideas, lifting our sights beyond the tribe and the group to see the worth and goodness of everyone, to respect others, to empathize with them, and to include them in the progress of humanity.” He added: “You don’t find all that in every tradition. Its abundance in our Western tradition is to be cherished, tended, and protected.”

Like Obama, Perry acknowledged faults and flaws in American democracy and European history. But he seemed to have Obama’s ‘fault on both sides’ argument very much in mind when he countered with these words: “The shortcomings of Western democracies, the systematic savagery of the enemy—to a certain way of thinking, it all gets mixed up as one: ‘They’ve got bad guys over there, we’ve got a few of our own—what’s the difference?’”

Perry’s London speech focused on the threat from ISIS and the Middle East. In Warsaw, he would have spoken about another—nearer—challenge: from Vladimir Putin and a revanchist Russia. In his prepared, undelivered remarks, Perry paid due tribute to the fact that it is the president, not governors—not even Texas governors—who make America’s foreign policy. Then he added his own personal view about the force destabilizing Eastern Europe:

The president of Russia, Mr. Putin, may regard treaty obligations as so many words on paper, and just as easily tossed aside.

But we operate a little differently in the NATO counties: We actually keep our commitments.

That helps explain why, after nearly 70 years, there is still a NATO while the Iron Curtain, Eastern Bloc, and Warsaw Pact all belong to a miserable history we were all glad to put behind us.

As before in history, holding to our NATO obligations can mean the difference between threats invited and threats deterred.

Worse troubles are always avoided when we stick together as the inseparable allies that we are and offer more than consoling words to friends like Ukraine.

Hostile actors need to know that in every circumstance we defend our interests and keep our word.

Perry’s speech followed a speech in Tallinn, Estonia by Obama that emphatically restated America’s security guarantee to all NATO allies, including the newest and smallest. That speech was forceful and powerful—and was almost instantly tested by the Russians. Forty-eight hours after Obama spoke, Russian security forces crossed the border into Estonia, threw smoke grenades, and abducted an Estonian security officer, according to Estonian officials, who presented their evidence for this sequence of events to Russian authorities. The Russians nonetheless paraded the officer, Eston Kohver, before Russian TV as an accused spy. (Kohver was investigating a Russian smuggling operation, and one theory holds that the criminals involved mobilized protectors in Russian intelligence to respond to the probe.) Kohver is still being held in a Moscow prison.

Whatever the cause of the incident, the Kohver case represents a violent, armed incursion by a hostile power into the territory of a NATO ally. The American response has been muted, to say the least. If Obama’s Tallinn speech issued a promise whose validity remains uncertain, Perry’s Warsaw address administered a polite reminder and reproach:

The most obvious test [to the NATO alliance] comes in challenges we have seen to the integrity of borders—borders long recognized and affirmed by treaties.

[Poland] understands as well as any other all the grief that follows when borders and national sovereignty are treated as nothing.  

In both the London and Warsaw speeches, Perry vigorously expounded his core strategic idea: that North America had the potential to replace Russia as a reliable and price-competitive energy supplier, particularly of natural gas, delivered in liquid form. “When Europe’s energy sources are more diverse, the nations of Europe will be more secure,” he said in London. “When its economies are more integrated, Europe will be more competitive, resilient, and prosperous.”

This is a position that would be broadly endorsed by any of the Republican candidates for president. But the minute the foreign-policy conversation shifts from treaties and weapons systems to energy resources and transportation systems, the resume of a governor rather than a senator shifts from a handicap to a qualification.

Until 2012, Rick Perry had never lost an election. His defeat that year, and especially the way in which it occurred, had to be an anguishing and agonizing experience. But in the time since, he’s apparently recovered his bearings and confidence. Hours before Perry’s London speech, I was able to see him in a more informal setting during an off-the-record briefing at the British think tank Policy Exchange. (Call it disclosure if you wish or #humblebrag if you prefer: I chair PX’s board of trustees.) Perry showed none of the fumbling uncertainty visible during the presidential debates in 2012. His questions were incisive, and his knowledge of British history, politics, and culture—gained from his Air Force service in the U.K. in the mid-1970s—impressive.

The list of Republican candidates for 2016 is long. Still, a Texas governor always belongs near the top of that list given the state’s lode of electoral votes and deep-pocketed donors. In this cycle, there are four candidates who can trace their roots to Texas: not only Perry and Cruz, but also Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, each of whom has his own family connection to the state. The battle for Texas’s campaign donations may shape the first round of the upcoming GOP nomination fight.

Yet Texas could well play an even larger role in 2016. In recent months, the state has unexpectedly found itself on the frontline of international stories: first the surge across the border of unaccompanied Central American minors hoping to gain residency in the United States, then the spread of Ebola to the United States by a would-be Liberian immigrant. When he ran for president in 1999-2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush was often challenged to explain how he, a mere governor, could claim foreign-policy credentials. But as the world grows smaller, governors loom larger. The crisis that called Rick Perry home from Warsaw to Dallas last week was in every sense a global one.