Rick Santorum’s foreign policy: combative hawk–and, according to Bono, “defender of the vulnerable”

Laura Rozen
January 5, 2012

Rick Santorum--the surprise almost-first-place finisher in the Iowa GOP presidential caucus Tuesday--advocates a hawkish, internationalist and compassionate foreign policy deeply informed by his socially conservative, Roman Catholic faith.

Santorum had been a prominent leader in the GOP Senate caucus from 2001 through 2007, when he served as the chair of the Senate Republican Policy conference. The Pennsylvania lawmaker had been "a big supporter of AIDS funding in the Senate," a former Santorum staffer told Yahoo News Wednesday on condition of anonymity because she does not work for campaign. "He took the lead in funding for African development. He cares a lot about the underdog."

At the same time, Santorum has also been a consistent hawk when it comes to projecting U.S. power abroad, advocating a more aggressive American posture toward regimes in Syria, Iran and China. And like many conservative lawmakers, Santorum has taken an extremely pro-Israel line on the perennially-stalemated Middle East peace process. He had served on the Senate Armed Services committee for eight years, and was a principal author of legislation sanctioning the Syrian regime and promoting support to opponents of the Iranian regime.

"Rick has had intelligence briefings, he has been on the Senate armed services committee," said Barbara Ledeen, a former Santorum Senate aide, in a telephone interview with Yahoo News Wednesday.

"He has a deep concern about China, about the Middle East and about America's place in the world," Ledeen added. "He is well read and well informed. And he believes that America is a gift to the world."

Indeed, in 2006, Santorum earned a surprise--if somewhat backhanded--nod for his support for international anti-poverty work in Africa from U2 front-man and humanitarian activist Bono.

Santorum "has a kind of Tourette's disease," Bono told New York Times columnist David Brooks in 2006. "He will always say the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable."

"We need to keep and expand our commitment to humanitarian aid, especially in Africa," Santorum said in a speech to the National Press Club in April 2011. "China and Islam are competing for the hearts and minds of much of Africa, and we cannot turn our back from the investment and commitments we have made. I helped lead many of our efforts to address third-world debt and the global AIDS crisis, and our investments have paid off."

But Santorum's commitment to the promotion of democracy has also shown limits, especially when it comes to the combination of religious ideology and democratic reform in the Muslim world.

In the wake of the Arab Spring protests that toppled Egypt's strongman ruler Hosni Mubarak after more than three decades in power, Santorum stressed that democracy's expansion in the Arab world should stop shy of including groups with a conservative Islamic agenda such as Egypt's influential Muslim Brotherhood.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is not … about democracy," Santorum told NBC host David Gregory on "Meet the Press" this past Sunday. "The Muslim Brotherhood are Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood are going to impose Sharia law."

"They were popularly elected, I think," Gregory responded. "Isn't that what democracy is about?"

"No," Santorum said.

Meanwhile, on the question of Iran, Santorum has called out President Obama for failing to offer fuller, more overt support for the green movement protestors who took to the streets in Tehran in the wake of the  disputed June 2009 presidential vote that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power by a suspiciously large margin. Under his Iran policy, Santorum explained, the United States would "fund the pro-democracy movement, use covert activities to disrupt" Iran's nuclear program, and work more openly with Israel to warn Iran. "You either open up those facilities . . . or we will degrade those facilities through airstrikes and make it very public that we are doing that," Santorum told Gregory. "The president has done none of those."

Gregory then asked Santorum if the Obama White House isn't indeed pursuing a covert action strategy to thwart Iran's nuclear program--including the recent release of a Stuxnet virus to infect computer systems operating within Iran's nuclear program.

Santorum replied that, if he were president, he'd make a point of talking more openly more about such clandestine initiatives. "I would be very direct that we would, in fact, and openly, talk about this," he said.

Gregory followed up with questions about whether a Santorum White House would approve air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities if they were found to be nearing a state of weapons capability. Santorum replied that his intention would be to do just that.  "I mean, you can't go out and say…. this is what I'm for and then do nothing," he said. "You become a paper tiger, and people don't respect our country and our allies can't trust us. That's the problem with this administration."

When Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006, he set up a program on national security—the Program to Protect America's Freedom--at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an inter-faith conservative think tank whose fellows tend to share a broad Catholic outlook. At EPPC, Santorum worked closely with his former Senate counsel Randall Brandt, who had also been an adviser from 2007-2009 to the Bush adminstration's ambassador for international religious freedom, John Hanford. (Santorum and Brandt each took a leave from the EPPC around when Santorum launched his campaign last spring.)

But Santorum as candidate has sought very little outside foreign policy advice, national security experts said. They observe that Santorum, much like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, already knows what he believes and is well briefed.

"My sense is Santorum is someone who worked on foreign policy issues for years," said Jamie Fly, a former Bush official with the National Security Council, in an interview with Yahoo News Wednesday.

"It was a priority [for him] when he was in the Senate," said  Fly, now executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He also stressed Santorum's work on legislation sanctioning Syria and Iran.

"Santorum is pretty forward leaning—he would not just cut all foreign aid across the board," Fly said.  His support for foreign aid in the fiscally strapped era "ties into what his values are--that there are areas of the world that deserve our support, not just to advance American national security, but for moral reasons. That makes him unique."

This moral vision of American diplomacy also gives Santorum a boost from not just fellow Roman Catholics but also from evangelicals. Many conservative Protestants do humanitarian and community development work around the world, which means that Santorum is able to connect with this key GOP constituency, according to the former Santorum staffer.

"Evangelicals love Rick," the former staffer said. "And they are all over China, Africa, running schools, clinics. What Rick is saying is these are jobs, that are [best] done not by the government, but by churches, communities, charitable organizations."

Other popular Yahoo! News stories:

Want more of our best national security stories? Visit The Envoy or connect with us on Facebook and on Twitter.

Want more politics? Visit The Ticket or connect with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or add us on Tumblr. Handy with a camera? Join our Election 2012 Flickr group to submit your photos of the campaign in action.