The consensus seems to be that Paul Ryan is an unknown quantity when it comes to foreign policy. He's a free trader, sure, and a guy who takes American "exceptionalism" pretty seriously -- he recently called the United States "the greatest force for human freedom the world has ever seen" -- but does he really have a grand strategy for advancing U.S. global interests? If his sparse record on foreign policy precludes answering that question, the congressman's work promoting free trade in the Middle East -- coupled with a pair of platitude-laden speeches he delivered at the Hamilton Society and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) -- at least gives us a window into his thinking. And by that barometer, Ryan's vision dovetails neatly with the neoconservative policies of George W. Bush.
Ryan's free-trade beliefs are not just an extension of his domestic priorities, but an integral part of what Bush called his "forward strategy of freedom." Following the 9/11 attacks, free trade became a central component of the U.S. strategy in the war on terror. The idea was simple: draw economically and culturally backward countries into the global economy, and their governments will become less autocratic. Freedom, in turn, would allow moderates to triumph. As U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick put it in 2004 upon concluding a preliminary trade deal with the United Arab Emirates, the agreement "complements our strong partnership in our fight against terrorism ... Expansion of trade with the [UAE] is part of our efforts to promote democracy and economic vitality in the Middle East."
The Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) initiative, announced in May 2003, was to be one of the cornerstones of the administration's new anti-terrorism policy -- and Paul Ryan quickly emerged as its most stalwart champion. MEFTA's implementation was supposed to begin with membership in the World Trade Organization and culminate in a series of bilateral free trade agreements between the United States and what Ryan described in his 2009 CFR speech as "20 moderate Muslim countries." (Israel and Cyprus, neither primarily Muslim, fell under MEFTA, as did Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, which can hardly be described as moderate.) But after a few early successes, MEFTA faded from the agenda, hamstrung in linchpin countries like Egypt and the UAE by political and commercial disputes.
Before MEFTA tanked, Ryan, perched on the House Ways and Means committee, helped negotiate free-trade agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, and Jordan, as well as preliminary trade and investment framework agreements (known as TIFAs) with a dozen other countries in the region. He also formed the bipartisan Congressional Middle East Economic Partnership caucus to press for further free-trade legislation. At the heart of the free-trade push was the desire to influence domestic policy in partner countries -- after all, U.S. trade with the Middle East is minimal and virtually all of it involves oil. But as Ryan explained at CFR in 2009, MEFTA gave the United States leverage to "get these countries to open up and to respect human rights."
Free trade, in Ryan's view, is a "carrot approach" that helps spread American values. "[T]hrough each of these trade agreements we require things like the rule of law, enforceable contracts, women's rights, and advancements towards openness, transparency and democracy," he said.
On this count, Ryan sounds a lot like Mitt Romney, who recently suggested that the Arab uprisings might have been avoided if only Bush's "freedom agenda" hadn't been cut short by the new administration. "President Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner," Romney said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper.