House Speaker Paul Ryan visits the the Iron Dome missile defense system in Israel on his recent trip to the Middle East. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson Unit)
Fresh from a trip to the Middle East, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday that American allies in the region — including Israel — thanked him for taking on Donald Trump over his call to bar Muslim immigrants from the United States.
“When you see our beliefs, our values — and conservatism’s principles — being disfigured, you have to speak out,” Ryan said. “People over there knew about it and thanked me for doing it.”
Asked whether that included Israel, the speaker replied: “Yeah.”
Ryan aides had officially arranged the roughly 40-minute breakfast session to discuss his first overseas trip since assuming the speaker’s mantle, a voyage that took him to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But Ryan used the back-and-forth to lay out an election-year vision for the Republican Party’s foreign policy — one at odds with what he called President Obama’s “massive retrenchment” and Trump’s “Fortress America” unilateralism but also the military interventionism of George W. Bush.
“I am not a neocon,” Ryan said firmly, using the shorthand most often associated with the group of conservative foreign policy thinkers who strongly advocated for going to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
America can advance its values “without toppling and kicking over dictators and putting boots on the ground,” he said.
The Wisconsin lawmaker accused Obama of leaving a dangerous “vacuum” in the Middle East and improving Iran’s standing at the expense of its regional rival, and traditional U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia.
“Our allies want to know that we’re still in the game. Our allies are concerned that America is experiencing Middle East lethargy … Middle East fatigue,” Ryan said.
But he coupled those frequent Republican complaints about the president with a cautious foreign policy vision of his own — one in which America champions its values overseas while staying “realistic” about its ability to shape other societies and builds a powerful military that it only uses sparingly, with full awareness of the potentially disastrous consequences of bad planning.
“I believe we need to be consistent in professing our values,” he said. “At the same time, we have to be realistic about how far those values can be pushed.”
And, Ryan said, “I do believe that the U.S. has an important role to play in help keeping the global commons safe, secure, so that it can be prosperous.
“That’s why I think we need to have a reinvestment in our military. Not for the sake of using the military, but for the sake of having such a strong military that it is less likely to be used.”
Military interventions “are never clean and easy,” Ryan warned.
“We are really good at winning the front end of these things, but the back end has a huge tail that you have to be really committed to,” he added. “And I think we dropped our guard on Afghanistan and the situation deteriorated. And you know the story on Iraq. You have to think of these conflicts as very long-lasting, big-time commitments. They’re not quick, they’re not clean, they’re not antiseptic.”
With mounting annoyance, the former vice presidential candidate has repudiated persistent speculation that he aims to set himself up as the Republican Party’s savior in the chaotic 2016 campaign, perhaps by winning the nomination at a contested convention in July.
But if he won’t be the GOP’s candidate this year, he appears to be casting himself as its standard-bearer, prepared to help down-ballot candidates with money and messaging at a time when Republican elders worry that nominating Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz will spell defeat in close races come November.
Ryan spoke at length about encountering deep concerns from officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia alike about Obama’s agreement with Iran to curb that nation’s atomic ambitions. But the speaker did not explicitly call for ripping up the accord, which offered Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in return for steps to dismantle its nuclear programs.
Instead, Ryan called for taking a tougher line on Iran over its ballistic missile tests and trying to roll back efforts by major U.S. companies like Boeing to engage Tehran in hopes of doing business once international sanctions related to the Islamic republic’s nuclear programs melt away.
“I worry that so much toothpaste is going to get out of the tube that we’re not going to be able to put much back in,” he said. “And I do believe that, next year, with a new government, we need to put as much of this toothpaste back in the tube as we can.”
While he offered few precise, concrete proposals of his own, Ryan highlighted one of the difficult trade-offs inherent to presidential tradecraft as he described a long meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi’s government has cracked down sharply on dissent and non-governmental organizations.
Ryan said he had delivered the message that “you make it more difficult for us to be supportive of you when you have so many human rights violations.”
But Ryan also said that Sisi views his chief mission as keeping Egypt stable, and said that “our worst nightmare” is seeing failed states in the Middle East become breeding grounds of terrorism.
The speaker, who has stayed publicly neutral in the battle for the Republican nomination, refused to say which 2016 candidate he was closest to on foreign policy.
“Come on, man,” he said with an eye roll and a laugh. “I was born at night, but not last night.”