Rick Perry rode off in a new direction for the first time before a national audience Wednesday night, calling for a less-interventionist American foreign policy than has been articulated by most of his chief rivals in the 2012 Republican presidential field.
In doing so, the Texas governor left some with the impression he was condemning former President George W. Bush for U.S. "military adventurism." But, in the view of some analysts, he also put himself on the side of many primary voters.
"Perry's 'adventurism' statement last night probably rings true to more Republicans today than in the last 15 to 20 years," said Georgia-based pollster Matt Towery.
Perry campaign strategist David M. Carney said Mr. Perry's comments Wednesday at the debate at the Ronald W. Reagan Library and Museum in California are much more nuanced than an attack on anyone in particular.
"He laid out some standards on his vision of the use of military power," Mr. Carney said. "America's vital interests must be at stake, and we must have a plan to win, including the resources to get in, get the job done and get out.
"His point on military adventurism is not a criticism of any current or former actions, but just an explicit principle he would use when weighing the use of force," Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Perry had shared some of his foreign-policy views in an earlier speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, when he said, "I do not believe that America should fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism" — a view quietly held by many traditional conservatives in the GOP who for a decade or more have felt eclipsed by the more hawkish "neoconservatives" in the party.
Asked Wednesday if he meant Mr. Bush had acted too hastily in involving the country in two wars, Mr. Perry said his comments were "a philosophical statement that Americans don't want to see their young men and women going into foreign countries without a clear reason that American interests are at stake. And they want to see not only a clear entrance; they want to see a clear exit strategy, as well."
Sounding a note often associated with rival Rep. Ron Paul, Mr. Perry said, "We should never put our young men and women's lives at risk when American interests are not clearly defined by the president of the United States, and that's one of the problems this president is doing today."
After the debate, Reagan historian Craig Shirley said he thinks Mr. Perry is moving in that direction because "there is fertile political ground there to bring the party back to where it was historically."
Mr. Shirley argues that today's Republican primary voters are not inclined toward Arizona Sen. John McCain's hawkishness of the 2008 campaign nor what some critics on the right see as Mr. Paul's "isolationism."
"The middle ground between McCainism and Paulism — between projecting American power and only protecting American interests — is just right for most conservatives," Mr. Shirley said.
While other analysts agree with Mr. Shirley on the direction the GOP is headed, they see it less as an adherence to the Founding Fathers' disinclination toward "entangling foreign alliances" and more of an economic phenomenon.
"Republican voters' overall zeal for involvement abroad, whether Iraq and Afghanistan or Egypt and Libya, is much less than during the Bush administration," Mr. Towery said. "I believe there is one cause — the economy."
Some pundits said Mr. Perry's comments show why he is a favorite of the GOP's tea-party wing.
"The mood in the tea party is that defense budgets have to be cut as much as anything else," Oregon pollster Floyd Ciruli said. "Tea-party voters and even moderate Republicans are strongly anti-interventionist, not so much for philosophical reasons as for the budget."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mr. Perry's chief rival in the polls, had little to say on foreign policy Wednesday, again leaving some analysts unsure of where he stands.
"I ... don't expect to see [Mr. Romney] step out in any direction beyond what the establishment favors on foreign policy or any other area," Mr. Ciruli said.
"I know Republican voters party well and they aren't for expensive military action unless exigent," Mr. Lowery said. "They support the troops. They aren't less patriotic. But this country is retracting. Certainly on the Republican side, the message has become 'more jobs,' not 'more wars.' "
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