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Walker Stakes His Territory on Foreign Policy

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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There comes a time in every presidential campaign when the candidate must make his case to voters that he should be trusted to be the commander in chief of the U.S. military and the leader of the free world. That moment is now for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker,  and he is fighting for his own foreign policy identity against rivals like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Walker is ready to roll out his foreign policy in a speech Friday at the Citadel in South Carolina, just a couple of weeks after Bush laid out his plan to defeat the Islamic State. Rubio plans to give his own foreign policy speech in South Carolina on Friday as well, focused on China.

In an interview Tuesday, Walker told me he would be demonstrably different from Bush on foreign policy by scuttling the Iran deal as soon as he took office.

“My view is, if you think it’s a bad deal now, you should be prepared to do it on Day One," he said. "I’m going to be a Day One president."

Bush said last month that he would wait until he had a cabinet in place before deciding about the deal: “If you’re running for president, I think it’s important to be mature and thoughtful about this.” Donald Trump, who is leading in the polls, has also said he would not terminate the Iran deal on Day One.

Walker said he would stop waiving U.S. sanctions against Iran and would also work with Congress immediately to impose new, crippling sanctions with the hope of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. He said he would also work with allies to get them to reimpose their own sanctions against Iran, a task he acknowledges would be difficult.

In his speech, Walker plans to argue that the threats of Iran and the Islamic State are intertwined and require a coordinated strategy. He casts both threats as the result of a passive policy practiced by Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what he repeatedly called "leading from behind." Walker extended that critique to bat down one contender who isn't running yet: Vice President Joe Biden.

Walker argued that governors have more direct experience with leadership and management, as opposed to senators like Rubio, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul. As for Bush, he said,

“It’s not a difference in terms of matter of experience; it's just a difference in terms of approach.” He referenced the comments of Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, who said last month, “Bush seems more Bush-like, and Walker seems more Reagan-like.”

Walker is careful to temper his call for a more assertive U.S. foreign policy with a recognition that the overreach of the George W. Bush administration, especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is extremely unpopular.

“I’m not advocating that we become the world’s policeman or that we become nation builders, but I do think we need to have a stronger presence in the world and that will make us more safe,” he said. (Walker likes to talk in terms of “safety” rather than “national security.”)

When Walker first promised to quickly trash the deal, President Obama told him to “bone up” on foreign policy. Some of his early comments on foreign policy have raised eyebrows, such as in February when he seemed to compare his fights with Wisconsin protesters to the fight against the Islamic State. Now, Walker says his comments were misinterpreted.

“My point was, the kind of pressure that I was under at the height of the protests, with the death threats and everything else, showed that I have the capacity to handle pressure," he said. "I wasn’t intimidated.”

In March, he said that Iran and Israel were like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in the film "Trading Places." In July, he was forced to distance himself from a former Iranian hostage he had praised, after revelations that man had advocated for expansive attacks on several Middle Eastern countries. Earlier this month, Walker compared the Iran deal to allowing teenage boys to have girls in their bedrooms without adult supervision.  

Friday’s speech is intended in part to replace the image that those comments created. Following Obama's advice, Walker has indeed been boning up. He now has a large but still growing foreign policy senior advisory team. Led by former Senator Jim Talent, the group also includes former State Department official Kim Holmes; former State Department official Stephen Rademaker, now with the Podesta Group; Center for Strategic and International Studies scholar Heather Conley; former Pentagon official Mary Beth Long; Hudson Institute Middle East scholar Mike Doran; the American Enterprise Institute’s China hand Dan Blumenthal; former State Department official David Kramer, now with the McCain Institute; and former Bush administration official Robert O’Brien. He also has a small in-house national security staff led by former Senate Foreign Relations Committee aides Mike Gallagher and Daniel Vajdich.

Walker’s stance on foreign policy reflects the calculation that nuance and moderation are less politically beneficial than clarity and assertiveness. He’s been bolder than Bush on calling out China and Russia, even calling on Obama to cancel next month’s state visit to Washington by Xi Jinping. He has talked more than Bush, but less than Rubio, about promoting democracy and human rights.

Walker's challenge, in the foreign policy speech on Friday and beyond, is not just to make a good impression. It is to carve out a space in the foreign policy sphere that is different from competitors like Bush and Rubio, while spelling out why he and not they should be commander in chief.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net