The Foreign Policy Minefield for Scott Walker and Other GOP Contenders
Policy + Politics

The Foreign Policy Minefield for Scott Walker and Other GOP Contenders

The economy was hands down the top issue of the 2012 presidential campaign as the nation struggled to emerge from the recession.

Today, that obsession has shifted to growing fears about ISIS and the prospects of renewed terror attacks on the U.S. For the first time in five years, slightly more Americans cite defending the U.S. against terrorism (76 percent) than strengthening the economy (75 percent), according to a Pew Research Center policy priority survey conducted Jan. 7 through 11.

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This important development could have serious implications for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is currently burning up the track in the early going of the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes.

A strong speech to grassroots Iowa conservative Republicans last month helped catapult Walker into the top tier of GOP presidential aspirants. Moreover, he finished a close second to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual presidential preference straw poll last weekend.

Yet Walker’s inept responses to questions on foreign policy and the terrorism threats have exposed a gap in the former Milwaukee county executive’s understanding of global affairs. The intense media scrutiny of this hole in his credentials could undercut his credibility with many conservative voters and donors.  

In early February Walker visited a foreign policy think tank in London, where he would not discuss the war on ISIS, evolution or other highly charged topics, as The Fiscal Times previously reported. The governor said he felt uncomfortable discussing foreign affairs while overseas – invoking the old saw that U.S. politics should end at the water’s edge. Yet many journalists and political analysts thought this was strange behavior

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Last Thursday, Walker made a gaffe during an appearance at CPAC in suburban Washington when he compared his handling of a protest rally by Wisconsin state employees in 2011 to how he might handle ISIS threats if he were president.

“If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said in an offhand manner, though many took him seriously.

Walker and his aides later clarified he was merely trying to describe how forthrightly he deals with crisis. During an appearance on Fox News Sunday yesterday, Walker explained, “I’m not comparing those two entities,” referring to state employees and terrorists. Instead, he said he meant to show how he has exerted leadership under difficult circumstances.

“I apply that to saying that if I were to run and if I were to win and become commander-in-chief, I believe that kind of leadership is what’s necessary to take on radical Islamic terrorism,” he said.

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On Saturday, two days after his CPAC appearance, Walker raised more eyebrows at an exclusive conference in Palm Beach, Florida, sponsored by the conservative Club for Growth. He was one of five GOP presidential aspirants invited to discuss fiscal and foreign policy.

When pressed by moderator Frayda Levin, a Club for Growth board member, about what he was doing to prepare for being president in terms of foreign policy issues, Walker said, “Candidly, I think foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhDs. It’s about leadership. I would contend the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime was made by a president who was previously a governor. A president who made a decision that wasn’t even about foreign policy. It was in August of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers [after they went on strike].”

Walker added, “It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world [that] we weren’t to be messed with.”

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, took Walker to task today challenging the governor’s version of history and his foreign policy shortcomings.

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Drezner noted that the Soviets continued to act in a belligerent manner toward the U.S. for years after Reagan fired 11,300 controllers during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike.

“For a few years after Reagan clashed with PATCO, U.S. foreign relations took a turn for the worse, not for the better,” Drezner, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, wrote in The Washington Post.  

Recently, the conservative Weekly Standard’s John McCormick warned in a blog post, “Walker isn’t going to last very long if his main response to foreign policy questions is to point out that Ronald Reagan took on the air traffic controllers.”

McCormick added, “But if Walker has thought deeply about the issues and articulates a clear agenda, it’s doubtful that the lack of a college degree will significantly hurt him in the race for the presidency.”

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For now, there are no indications this past week was a big “oops” moment for Walker, just as former Texas governor Rick Perry flamed out after a fast start in the 2012 presidential campaign. But it underscores a problem that Walker and other governors face in running for president when their foreign policy and military experience is usually very limited.

As Molly O’Toole of Defense One wrote today, “A shallow background on defense issues doesn’t preclude a candidate from being elected, of course, but the stakes have been raised.”

Three in 10 of the more than 3,000 conservatives who voted in the CPAC straw poll said national security would be important to them in deciding the nominee, with foreign policy and national security moving up the list of voter priorities, CPAC reported.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said Walker’s comments aren’t likely to hurt him much among GOP voters. “In fact, if an opponent chooses to use it against him, it will simply highlight Walker’s fight against the unions in Wisconsin, which is wildly popular in the party base,” he said.

But in the general election, Walker’s statements could be used by the Democratic nominee to highlight his inexperience in foreign affairs – especially if he were up against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It’s easy to imagine this being a zinger aimed by Hillary Clinton at Walker in a presidential debate, if Walker gets to fall 2016,” Sabato said.

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