Gov. Scott Walker’s putative campaign for president has already pushed him way, way, way out of his comfort zone, and stories are piling up about bone-headed answers, disappointed donors, and an emergency course in foreign policy. The number of experts he’s said to have called upon in recent weeks is too extensive to recount here, and The Washington Post describes a meeting at a D.C. hotel “on a recent Monday” between the Wisconsin governor and “some of the GOP’s leading foreign policy lights.” The cheesehead governor recently finished reading The 9/11 Commission Report and Henry Kissinger’s World Order and is taking suggestions for additional entries on his syllabus for one. This is getting serious.
Puzzlingly, and perhaps true to Walker’s homespun style, he’s hired on a youngish man named Michael Gallagher to serve as foreign policy aide. Gallagher, a Marine and former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is just 31 years old and still working on a PhD from Georgetown University, according to the Post. The hook for Walker is that he’s a Green Bay native, and probably a swell guy, but an unconventional pick as Jeb Bush and other GOP hopefuls bring into their orbits key advisors – the sort of thinkers Walker may be button-hooking once or twice and letting glide away.
“Just like donors are getting signed up, foreign policy experts are getting signed up,” says Elizabeth Saunders, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Saunders has written a book Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions which points to the importance of presidents’ personalities, but not necessarily the electorate’s will or opinions, in foreign interventions. “Foreign policy has not been very salient to elections in the United States,” she says. “A lot of voters will say, ‘He has a very strong team, and that’s enough for me.’”
Such could be Walker’s saving grace – and one that presents itself via polling when all other lights have gone out, to use a Lord of the Rings reference. Some of the governor’s early war rhetoric so underwhelmed The Atlantic that it warned his foreign policy “shortcoming may well hand Election 2016 to the Democrats.” Other commentators have been less damning.
“It hasn’t been unusual for candidates since 1992 to be pretty inexperienced in foreign policy,” Saunders says, with George H. W. Bush standing as the last winning candidate with deep defense experience. To make up for a light resume, contenders traditionally “want to show that they have surrounded themselves with a strong group of advisors,” she says. “George W. Bush and Barack Obama have made the case that that’s fine [as a substitute], but the jury’s still out.”
According to Saunders’ research, an important distinction is whether a president or candidate believes in using military power to alter the internal political structures of other countries – or only in more surgical, “realist” interventions. Walker’s comments, so far, have revealed little on this front and have instead focused on how America should maintain a certain posture on the international stage.
He said in a March 2014 interview with the Washington Examiner:
When Ronald Reagan took that action against the air traffic controllers, that in my mind was the beginning of the end of the Cold War … And the reason was, from that point forward nobody doubted how serious Ronald Reagan would be as president. Our allies knew that they could trust him, that he was rock solid. Our adversaries knew not to mess with him … When we have an America where … Prime Minister Netanyahu was in the White House getting the cold shoulder from the president, who still can’t figure out exactly where they stand on Israel, and when you have… a red line in discussions about Syria which apparently (he) was never serious about doing anything about, no wonder, whether you were in Iran or Russia, or anywhere else around the world, no wonder people feel certain comfort taking action because they don’t see this administration as willing to act. I’m not necessarily encouraging that we draw red lines all over the place. My sense is just, you shouldn’t point a gun at somebody if you’re not prepared to shoot.
And more recently, Walker produced an opinion piece for the National Review that repeated GOP criticisms of Obama’s supposedly weak handling of Israel. It was also an opportunity to use the term “rapprochement,” which, just now, I had to autocorrect.
Walker’s favorite word remains “cheese,” however, as he made known during a much-parodied trip to London, where, instead of talking shop, he remained focused on Wisconsin’s unique opportunities for trade partnership. Enough of that foreign policy stuff.
“It is amazing,” Saunders says of the importance some candidates place on such discussions, “but not all that uncommon.”