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Onward Christian Soldier: Imagining a Pence Presidency

Be warned, the Vice President's foreign policy positions invoke a messianism not seen since the Bush Administration.

As Congress lurches towards impeachment, complete with Cabinet-level subpoenas, the specter of a Mike Pence presidency looms larger.

But let’s face it: Whether it’s in 2024 or sooner, President Pence in the Oval Office would be a dream come true for establishment Republicans and war hawk neocons alike. Trump-style “America First” nationalism would be dead on arrival, in its place the zombified corpse of globalism.

During the run up to the 2016 election, the media criticized Trump’s choice of Pence as hypocritical. Trump had famously broke with Republican orthodoxy when he called the Iraq war “a disaster.” He never missed an opportunity to deride Hillary Clinton for her support of the 2003 invasion. But Trump didn’t seem to mind that his choice for vice president had also voted for the war. Huh?

That’s because Trump sees the presidency as a one-man band, and he prefers to lead it in the same style as the Trump organization, unshackled by the past policy positions of aides. Pence looks straight out of “central casting,” Trump has been heard to say of his veep. For Trump, advisers are mostly decorative, and Pence is a vice president a Hollywood director might choose for a second-rate film.

Unlike Trump, Pence is not a newcomer to government. He has a lengthy record as both a U.S. Congressman and Governor of Indiana, highlighting why he has been described as “a hawk’s hawk.” Pence didn’t just vote for the war in Iraq; he went all in, supporting increases in defense spending, the export of “American values” style exceptionalism around the globe, and a resolution to delay a set-date for troop withdrawals from Iraq until the nation-building phase was complete.

Pence has advocated for U.S. military intervention in Syria, an icier relationship with Russia, and stronger support for NATO. Pence touts his Congressional record as one of the most conservative lawmakers in the country, and likes to describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

As vice president, Pence has continued to burnish his neocon bona fides. He has praised NATO throughout the Trump presidency, and continues to stress its importance on the international stage, even as allies feel he’s not on the same page as his boss.

Pence’s years in government and his time as vice president grant us a window into how his presidency might look. He’d likely adopt a “values agenda,” with a greater emphasis on democracy development and human rights, reminiscent of the policies of George W. Bush. Like Bush, Pence might increase funding for global health programs and other international development programs. He believes in strong international alliances, at least with countries that share Western values. If his past is the best predictor, Pence wouldn’t be shy about deploying the military to far-flung corners of the globe.

Pence’s speech to newly minted West Point graduates earlier this year gives us a sobering look at how he sees the world:

It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen. Some of you will join the fight against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of you will join the fight on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific, where North Korea continues to threaten the peace, and an increasingly militarized China challenges our presence in the region. Some of you will join the fight in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to redraw international boundaries by force. And some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.

And when that day comes, I know you will move to the sound of the guns and do your duty, and you will fight, and you will win. The American people expect nothing less. So, wherever you’re called, I urge you to take what you learned here and put it into practice. Put your armor on, so that when — not if — that day comes, you’ll be able to stand your ground.”

For Pence, the U.S. military will soon have to “fight on a battlefield.” This is when, not if. His idea of American defense is power projection and policing the globe.

There is a “high probability that Pence would explicitly embed religious morals in U.S. foreign policy,” wrote former Obama foreign policy officials Hady Amr and Steve Feldstein in May 2017.

“Two major aspects would characterize Pence’s foreign policy: a re-embrace of the Republican establishment and an aggressive uptake of Christian social conservative thought… Pence might favor a ‘clash of civilizations‘ strategy, preferring alliances with countries that have a ‘Judeo-Christian” character.'”

Their editorial has proven prescient.

Heralding “the return of faith-based foreign policy” during a recent summit in Singapore, Defense One lavished praise on Pence’s “stirring performance” as he sat beside Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and called the country’s military out for its violent persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

Pence “employed the seemingly bygone, more universalist language of American values” rather than the ugly, utilitarian adherence to “national interests” favored by Trump. Pence and former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley exemplify “a values-driven approach to foreign policy… that seems to arise at least in part from Pence’s evangelical Christian faith.”

It is, indeed, a throwback; we haven’t seen that strong adherence to faith combined with an almost supernatural belief in American primacy since Bush Jr. occupied the Oval Office. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with his unsubtle religious speeches that ratchet up the heat on Iran, exemplifies this strange alchemy of Christianity and aggression. Like Pompeo, Pence likes to combine Bible verses with foreign policy. When Pence says in his West Point speech that graduates should “put your armor on,” he’s referencing the Christian gospel of St. Paul: you should “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”

Pence resurrects the Bush-era the worldview that uses psuedo-religious framing for U.S. interventionism and paints every battle in hackneyed black-and-white, good vs. evil, no matter how ill-befitting that narrative to particular combatants. Bush and McCain called the Iraq War a conflict between good vs. evil; and we saw how that turned out. Yet the spark of this model of foreign policy remains alive and well within the Republican establishment.

Military-industrial complex boosters within the swamp are happy to exploit that messianic quest for political gain. Messaged as a global crusade for democracy and human rights, Pence and Pompeo are standard-bearers for their worldview.

No one should be surprised that international interventionism combined with the iron-clad belief in the triumph of democracy has resurfaced. Indeed, it never really left. Ever since President Woodrow Wilson said “the world must be made safe for democracy” as he sent U.S. doughboys off to battle in World War I, there has been a certain seduction in the idea that the U.S. can “spread democracy” by sending soldiers to war. There’s many valid critiques of Trump’s transactional foreign policy, but America should think long and hard before resurrecting the Bush-era globalist model. Should Congressional Democrats get their way on impeachment, we may face a foreign policy reckoning sooner than we think.

Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.



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