September 01, 2011

On Allies

I have been away from the blog this week because I am in Finland at the invitation of our embassy here and will next be traveling to Norway. Over the past few days, I have been speaking with local think tanks in Helsinki as well as leading roundtable discussions on everything from Afghanistan to the Arab Spring with Finnish parliamentarians, local diplomats from other allies countries, and representatives from Finland's Ministry of Defense. I will do more of the same in Oslo. When the embassies here in Scandinavia asked me to visit in exchange for a plane ticket and small per diem to cover my expenses, I jumped at the chance. I have worked with Finns and Norwegians in Afghanistan but have have never visited either country. It's important for Americans, I believe, to show our appreciation for our friends and allies in the international community, because we rely on those allies to get things done, and many of our allies have fought and bled alongside U.S. soldiers and Marines from Normandy to Basra.

On the way here, though, I read a transcript of Gov. Rick Perry's recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I respect the fact that Gov. Perry has little foreign policy experience on account of his long political career in Texas, and I do not expect him to yet be as savvy or as wise an observer of international affairs as his fellow Aggies Ryan Crocker or Bob Gates. My head dropped in anguish, though, when I read this:

We respect our allies, and must always seek to engage them in military missions. At the same time, we must be willing to act when it is time to act. We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multi-lateral debating societies. And when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders.

To the best of my knowledge, U.S. soldiers and Marines have served under the command of Dutch, Italian, Canadian, German and British commanders in Afghanistan. (I'm sure I could add more countries to the list.) Several countries have sacrificed mightily in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I myself fought under a Canadian battalion commander in 2002 in Afghanistan and under a British special operations commander in 2003 in Iraq. Most of our allies -- and especially our friends in the ANZUS Pact, the 60th anniversary of which we just celebrated -- are as blunt-speaking as any Texan and would have rather preferred Gov. Perry come right out and insult them to their faces rather than obliquely insult them while professing to respect them.

I'm actually shocked that Gov. Perry's foreign policy advisors allowed this text to make it into his speech, but I can see how this jingoistic populism might prove politically effective in the battle for the Republican nomination. What might make for short-term political gains, though, also amounts to bad long-term foreign policy.

Gov. Perry's defenders will argue most Americans do not care about foreign affairs, and I somehow doubt Gov. Perry cares whether or not members of the Council on Foreign Relations will vote for him anyway. But this isn't about politics: as important as getting elected president is displaying the temperament and intelligence to be a good president once elected. And Gov. Perry may dismiss the United Nations, but our allies do not. (Don't believe me? Go ask any Israeli what "September" means to them and why their prime minister has been asking our president to scurry around asking for votes from our European allies of late.)

If any foreign policy advisor to Gov. Perry is reading this, I would recommend them schedule a trip for the governor to Japan, Australia and South Korea -- just three of the allies on which the United States will depend over the next eight years. He should take the time to hear their concerns and listen to the way in which they have each served alongside and supported the United States. He should then take a trip to Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers serve with and under troops from over 40 foreign countries (including the Marine Corps!).

Because some of us egg-head multilateralists are also lifetime members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and understand both the skill and sacrifice with which our allies have helped us meet the challenges of the past ten years. Gov. Perry should too, because, again, as important as populist rhetoric is to winning president elections, so too is temperament and experience to being a good president once elected.


I have joked before, quoting a certain retired Marine colonel, that the only strategic lesson we have learned from our experiences in Vietnam and Iraq is not to elect Texans president. But the best Americans I know are Texan. I have a friend from San Antonio, for example, who I admire above nearly all other non-Tennesseans on Earth: he is smart, humble, God-fearing, knows frightful amounts about guns and hunting, and is the kind of guy who will grab a bottle of Buffalo Trace, pour you a glass, and sit around the campfire talking about everything from Jesus Christ to Cormac McCarthy to Townes Van Zandt. He is the best kind of Texan -- and American. The worst Americans, though, are also Texans: they are loud, prone to bragging at length and volume, ignorant and intolerant of others, and indulge in a kind of Little America-ism that makes our country less welcoming and more provincial. (They also get Tennessee into wars with Mexico, but that is another matter.) I can vote for the former, of course, but not for the latter. I'll reserve judgment, for now, about which one Gov. Perry is.