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Ryan the Generic Hawk

Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t think much of Paul Ryan’s foreign policy musings. He recalls an exchange from Ryan’s debate with Biden in 2012:

Ryan constantly criticizes Democrats, and only Democrats, for not engaging in more reckless behavior, merely on the grounds that it would be symbolically satisfying. In his 2012 vice-presidential debate against Joe Biden, he criticized the Obama administration’s Iran policy, saying “when the Green Revolution started up, they were silent for nine days.” What did Ryan want? Air support or a hashtag?

Ryan was voicing the standard Republican objection to the administration’s response to the start of the Green movement protests in 2009, which amounted to complaining that the president didn’t “speak out” publicly as early as they would like. This suited hawkish critics that wanted to attack Obama for being both “weak” and too accommodating to authoritarian regimes. That was the usual Republican attack on Clinton in the ’90s and it became the party line view of Obama over the last seven years. Whining about the supposedly tardy or inadequate American response to the Green movement gave Republicans the opportunity to bash Obama for his supposed lack of confidence in American “leadership” and his supposed lack of commitment to American “values,” both of which would be recurring themes in their attacks on his foreign policy thereafter. Virtually no one faulting Obama for not “speaking out” soon enough or forcefully enough made any practical suggestions for what the U.S. ought to have done instead, and no one even attempted to make an argument that a more activist response would have made the slightest difference for the better. That’s probably because even most of the critics understood that there was nothing constructive that the U.S. could have done. Spelling out what the hawks would have the U.S. do instead would have required them to endorse much more dangerous and provocative policy options or reveal their complaints to be empty point-scoring.

I commented on Ryan’s criticism at the time:

According to a standard movement conservative argument, the summer of 2009 was the great “missed opportunity” when the U.S. could have tried destabilizing the Iranian government and didn’t, but by Ryan’s own admission the only difference in what a Romney administration would have done in the same situation was to “speak out” more quickly. By all accounts, if the U.S. government had offered stronger rhetorical support even sooner, it would not have made the protests more successful. Everyone understands that it would have achieved nothing in Iran. It might have conceivably done harm to the protesters’ cause, but there is no reason to believe it would have done them any good. Most likely, it would have had no effect at all. Many Americans wanted to make an internal Iranian dispute into our business, but it never had anything to do with us.

These critics had many other serious misunderstandings of the Green movement and its implications for U.S.-Iranian relations, but that’s not my concern here. The emphasis that these hawkish critics put on the imagined efficacy of “speaking out” was an early sign that they had fully embraced the idea of the Presidency as a vehicle for delivering rhetoric capable of changing entrenched political realities on the other side of the planet [bold added-DL]. We can only hope that they do not sincerely hold such an insane belief.

Ryan was just following the party line on all this, and what a vacuous party line it was. Dougherty is right that it shows that Ryan doesn’t give much thought to these issues and has often fallen back on generic statements that don’t commit him to much. In that way, Ryan is not all that different from most of his fellow hawks when they have demanded more “leadership” and insisted that the U.S. do “more” in foreign conflicts without taking the risk of endorsing a specific alternative.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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