Rep. Paul Ryan is a Republican congressman from the state of Wisconsin who was first elected to national office in 1998. Mitt Romney's running mate during the 2012 presidential election, Ryan is a prominent rightwing hawk on both foreign and domestic policy who has built much of his reputation on promoting severely austere economic and government spending bills.
Ryan is best known as the architect of the budget passed by House Republicans in March 2012, which called for steep cuts in social services, a voucher-based privatization of Medicare, and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Despite efforts by Ryan's supporters to cast the budget as a means to deficit reduction, it was widely criticized for targeting austerity measures at the most vulnerable people in society. In a series of letters issued in April 2012, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the Ryan budget, arguing that it failed to meet basic "moral criteria."
Similarly, the Nobel Prize-winning liberal economist Paul Krugman lambasted the document for proposing a litany of cuts to valued social programs while failing to close a single tax loophole and ruling out any increase in the small tax investors pay on capital gains. Calling the plan "surely the most fraudulent budget in American history," Krugman wrote that "Ryan talks loudly about the evils of debt and deficits, but his plan would actually make the deficit bigger even as it inflicted huge pain in the name of deficit reduction."
Ryan is also well known for his support of extremely conservative social policies, particularly on abortion. He once told the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine that he is "as pro-life as a person gets." In a 2010 essay for the Heritage Foundation, Ryan compared the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion to the notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision, which argued that black slaves, including those who had been freed, were not legally citizens. Wrote Ryan: "After America has won the last century's hard-fought struggles against unequal human rights in the forms of totalitarianism abroad and segregation at home, I cannot believe any official or citizen can still defend the notion that an unborn human being has no rights."
According to the Associated Press, "Ryan was also one of several dozen Republican co-sponsors [in 2011] of a bill called the Sanctity of Human Life Act. The measure, which never made it to the House floor, would give a fertilized egg the same legal rights as a person. Abortion rights groups say that would effectively outlaw all abortions, as well as some types of contraception and in-vitro fertilization. Efforts to implement such 'personhood' laws at state levels have been rejected even in the most conservative settings."
Before becoming a congressman, Ryan served in a variety of posts in Washington. In the early to mid-1990s, he worked as a speechwriter for the William Bennett-led advocacy group Empower America. Before Empower morphed into the influential establishment Tea Party group FreedomWorks in the mid-2000s, it launched a widely noted pressure group called Americans for Victory over Terrorism, which touted a militarist U.S. foreign affairs agenda in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In 1996, Ryan worked as a speechwriter for the late Jack Kemp, then the GOP vice presidential nominee who served as a mentor to Ryan and was also a director of Empower America along with Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Vin Weber. Ryan also worked as a legislative director for former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), a "pro-Israel" hardliner whose views reflect those of Christian Zionism.
Foreign Policy Positions
Ryan regularly criticizes the Obama administration's foreign policy. He sometimes evokes the late Jack Kemp, the notoriously hawkish congressman (R-NY) for whom Ryan once worked as a speechwriter, in describing his approach to foreign policy. "You know, Jack Kemp used to say he wasn't a hawk-he was a heavily armed dove. That's what I'd like to think I am-and what we all are," he said at a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conference in 2014.
During the same CNAS conference, Ryan derided President Obama's foreign policy as "weak and indecisive" and argued Obama should take more "action" abroad. "What I've seen is, in far too many cases, the president doesn't back up his words with actions," he proclaimed. He also called for more "drone strikes, direct strikes, economic sanctions" against "Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers," who he stated "are in nooks and crannies all around the world."
Ryan has also criticized the "pivot" to Asia and has argued that the Pacific region should be more militarized. "The numbers speak for themselves," he declared in 2014. "Just under 3,000 Marines are on rotation in Australia. Just four littoral combat ships are to be based in Singapore. With numbers like these, our allies wonder, if they're in a pinch, will America be there?"
Ryan has proclaimed that the Obama administration has caused a "lasting damage to foreign policy and world affairs," which he believes will have "huge consequences that are going to last a long time in this world."
He lambasted the July 2015 Iran deal as "terrible" and called for Congress to "reject it." In September 2015, he also stated that Congress should impose new sanctions on Iran, which experts argued would derail the agreement and put the United States on a dangerous path of escalation with Iran. "Instead of opening pathways for Iran's nuclear and terrorist agenda your administration should work with Congress to strengthen sanctions regimes until Iran changes its behavior," he said in a letter to the White House.
Ryan did, however, oppose the military strikes the Obama administration was considering against Syria in September 2013. Shortly before the White House abandoned the idea of attacking Syria, Ryan said in a speech: "Instead of the proposals put forth by the President, we should tighten sanctions on Assad's regime and give aid to the moderate elements of the opposition."
Ryan staunchly supported the controversial March 2015 address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress criticizing the then on-going nuclear negotiations with Iran. He accused the President of making a "huge mistake dissing the prime minister of Israel."
Foreign Policy Views on the 2012 Campaign Trail
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ryan's foreign policy views did not factor prominently in his public profile, and on several issues—such as the U.S.-Israeli relationship—Ryan's ideas appeared vague. This fact was highlighted in news coverage of Ryan's widely noted meeting in Las Vegas with the controversial casino magnate, major Romney campaign funder, and hardline "pro-Israel" advocate Sheldon Adelson, which took place just four days after Ryan was named as Romney's running mate. The New York Times noted that "Mr. Ryan's connections to Mr. Adelson are looser" than those between Adelson and Romney, and that Ryan's "opinions on Israel and the Middle East peace process are less well defined." Quipped an unnamed Republican donor regarding the Ryan-Adelson confab, "It's a safe bet Israel will come up."
In an apparent effort to bolster Ryan's foreign policy chops, the Romney campaign reportedly tapped the leading neoconservative ideologue Elliott Abrams to brief the VP candidate. Abrams is a convicted Iran-Contra figure who headed the Middle East desk at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and has been a strident advocate for the Iraq War and various right-wing, "pro-Israel" policies. During the 2012 election campaign, Abrams called on Congress to authorize a U.S. war with Iran.
According to James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ryan is "firmly in the Republican internationalist mainstream—touting American exceptionalism and the benefits of strong U.S. global leadership." This worldview was on display during a June 2011 speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society in which Ryan repeated neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer's quip that "decline is a choice." Arguing for an interventionist U.S. foreign policy, Ryan warned that a "world without U.S. leadership will be a more chaotic place, a place where we have less influence, and a place where our citizens face more dangers and fewer opportunities. Take a moment and imagine a world led by China or by Russia."
Alluding to his support for the unpopular wars in which the United States has recently been engaged, Ryan said, "Our ability to affect events is strongest in Iraq and Afghanistan, where for the last decade we have been fighting the scourge of global terrorism. In these countries, we can and we must remain committed to the promotion of stable governments that respect the rights of their citizens and deny terrorists access to their territory." Like nearly all of his House Republican colleagues, Ryan voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq and supported the Bush administration's 2007 "surge" in the country.
The neoconservative Weekly Standard praised Ryan's speech for laying out "a vision that defended America's exceptional role as a world leader and drew sharp contrast to those who advocate for isolationism and withdrawal." Bill Kristol, the magazine's editor and a longtime neoconservative activist, later became a high-profile Republican advocate for Ryan's selection as the party's vice presidential pick.
Other commentators, however, took issue with Ryan's military-first approach to U.S. foreign policy. "Ryan gives every indication that he favors exporting our political principles abroad and using strongly moralizing rhetoric to berate other governments that reject them," wrote Daniel Larison in a column for The Week. Yet compared to his steadfast support for bloated Pentagon budgets, "Ryan seems remarkably uninterested in funding diplomacy and development aid, and seems to conceive of U.S. power abroad mostly in terms of military strength. On foreign policy, Paul Ryan truly is a product of the era of George W. Bush."
Ryan has argued that "Islamic fascism"—a term propagated by hardline neoconservative activists like Frank Gaffney—is the face of America's "enemy." He reportedly stated on his 2006 election campaign website: "A debate has been raging about what to call our enemy—the terrorists and radical Muslim leaders who have committed themselves to bringing death and destruction to America, Israel, and allied democracies. President Bush has used the term 'Islamic fascists' to describe the threat we face, while Senator Feingold argues that phrase is offensive and misleading. … 'Islamic fascism' expresses the essence of the violent, extremist, religion-driven movement that confronts us."
Ryan's adoption of inflammatory language to describe purported enemies has excited right-wing observers. In an August 2012 entry on the "Libertarian Republican" blog, contributor Eric Dondero praised Ryan's defense of the term "Islamic fascism," arguing that it "sounds like something straight out of the mouth of Geert Wilders," the Dutch politician notorious for his efforts to attack Islam.
On some foreign policy issues—particularly those related to trade—Ryan's record put him at odds with Romney. Romney, for example, promised to designate China a "currency manipulator" on "day one" of his presidency, potentially initiating a de facto trade war with the world's second-largest economy. Ryan, on the other hand, maintained that the United States stands "to benefit from a world in which China and other rising powers are integrated into the global order with increased incentives to further liberalize their political and economic institutions."
In defiance of most of his Republican colleagues, Ryan has also voted consistently to overturn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. However, during the 2012 presidential campaign, he argued that his view on the embargo had "evolved." He explained to an audience of influential Cuban-Americans—including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—during a campaign stop in Miami in September 2012, "You learn from friendships just how brutal the Castro regime is, just how this president's policy of appeasement is not working."
Much of Ryan's foreign policy work in the House has concentrated on trade issues. CNN.com's "Security Clearance" blog reported that "the Middle East has been an area of interest for Ryan. He formed the Middle East Caucus in the early 2000s, and from his position on the Ways and Means Committee, he took the lead on pushing free trade agreements with Middle Eastern and Gulf countries that called for countries to enshrine the rule of law and women's rights in their governments." The blog added, however, that Ryan has also expressed a special fondness for the writings of Bernard Lewis, a conservative historian popular among many on the right because of his stridently critical views of Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East.
Ayn Rand Acolyte?
Ryan's apparent attraction to the philosophy ("objectivism") of the controversial author Ayn Rand—which celebrates greed and views altruism as evil—presents a notable twist to his public persona as a devout Catholic who holds mainstream American values. Rand acolytes have included several other high profile public figures, including former head of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan and the controversial anti-Islam zealot Pamela Geller.
Ryan, however, has tried to play down his association with Rand's philosophy. In an April 2012 interview with the right-wing National Review, Ryan said that his alleged devotion to Rand was an "urban legend." Later, after being chosen as Romney's VP running mate, Ryan insisted that he no longer "agreed with" Rand's philosophy.
Despite these efforts to distance himself from the controversial novelist, Ryan has a long track record of associating himself with Rand's thinking. In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society, which promotes Rand's ideas, Ryan lauded Rand, saying: "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. … The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." In the same speech, he used Rand's ideas to promote the privatization of Social Security, arguing that it amounted to a "fight of individualism versus collectivism."
More recently, in 2009, Ryan filmed a campaign video in which he extolled Rand's philosophy and endeavoured to make her ideas relevant to contemporary policy issues. The video is available on YouTube.
As one observer has argued, there is a good reason why Ryan has recently attempted to distance himself from Rand's philosophy, especially now that that he is on the GOP presidential ticket. Wrote Gary Weiss, author of the 2012 book Ayn Rand Nation: "Ryan's effort to put daylight between himself and Rand … reeks of history-rewriting. Certainly the speech he gave before the Atlas Society in 2005, in which he toed the Randian line, was no 'urban legend.' Ryan is no atheist, but atheism was at the core of [Ayn Rand's] philosophy, because the teachings of the Bible simply do not jibe with her belief that selfishness is moral, greed is good and altruism is evil. It's not surprising that Ryan's budget plan, which cuts programs for the poor and middle class while imposing no new taxes on the rich, has been criticized by some in the Roman Catholic Church. Paul Ryan can either be an objectivist or a Christian. He can't have it both ways. He faces a serious problem among Christians, moderate Republicans and others who dislike Rand's views if his expressions of support for Rand are believed, rather than his denials."