Chris Christie’s trip to Mexico doubles as a foreign policy test

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A few days after Russian forces invaded Crimea, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was asked at a confidential meeting of Republican activists how he would have handled the situation differently from President Barack Obama.

It was not, according to several of those in attendance, a tough or unexpected inquiry. But Mr. Christie, usually renowned for his oratorical sure-footedness, offered an uncharacteristically wobbly reply, displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, would know better than to mess with him.

According to an audio recording of the event, he said Mr. Putin had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. “I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment,” Mr. Christie said. “Let’s leave it at that.”

One attendee described Mr. Christie’s answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance. Another called it “uncomfortable to watch.”

Now, as he weighs a run for the presidency at a moment of spiraling global mayhem, Mr. Christie’s trip to Mexico this week is taking on a sudden urgency: Intended as a trade mission, it will double as a chance to demonstrate a level of acumen and adroitness on foreign policy that has eluded him.

Republicans leaders are convinced that Mr. Obama’s second-term foreign policy — guided by an instinctive reluctance to use force and the mantra “don’t do stupid stuff” — has created an opening for a compelling Republican critique in 2016, and they are eager to find an authoritative statesman to deliver it.

The question for the party is whether Mr. Christie, whose political ascent was powered by a lacerating, undiplomatic personality, could be the right messenger.

Busy with his day job, still enmeshed in a scandal touched off by orchestrated traffic jams and, by his own admission, unschooled in the nuances of global affairs, Mr. Christie has committed several foreign policy faux pas this year — by the unforgiving standards of Republican presidential politics, anyway.

They range from the minor (omitting the word “Israel” from a speech before an influential Jewish group) to the more meaningful (calling the West Bank the “occupied territories” before another influential Jewish group). Audible gasps ensued in a Las Vegas ballroom, and an apology from Mr. Christie soon followed.

“This is something the governor has struggled with, because it’s so far outside his realm of experience,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University in New Jersey who has studied Mr. Christie throughout his tenure.

“He is not,” she added, “a global guy.”

He is, however, trying to become one. This summer, Mr. Christie finished “Reagan at Reykjavik,” Ken Adelman’s history of the pivotal 1986 Cold War summit meeting. He has struck up a friendship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now an informal foreign policy tutor; is known to consult with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger on major speeches that touch on world affairs; and is in contact with trusted Republican hands such as Robert B. Zoellick, a career diplomat and former head of the World Bank.

After spending nearly three hours with Mr. Christie at the State House in July, spinning through the geopolitics of Asia, the economic future of Europe and the energy industry in Mexico, Mr. Zoellick described his pupil as “very quick.”

“Sometimes people will flag,” he said. “He didn’t at all. It could have gone on longer.”

Yet Mr. Christie’s tutorials appear less organized or far along than those of potential 2016 rivals such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mr. Christie has yet to articulate a distinct vision of America’s place in the world that strays from his party’s typical expressions of dismay with Mr. Obama and well-worn tributes to Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Christie has been candid about the gaps in his international understanding. Pressed on them during an appearance in Chicago this year, Mr. Christie conceded, “I don’t have the briefings and the background to understand the intricacies of all that.”

Governors, whose duties entail little meaningful interaction with foreign governments, have always struggled to convey global know-how, or even familiarity with the names of foreign leaders. But for a variety of reasons, mastery of foreign relations is likely to become a bigger-than-usual yardstick in the 2016 Republican presidential contest.

There is a determination within the party to avoid repeating mistakes of the 2012 primary season, when the unwieldy field of candidates displayed an occasionally embarrassing lack of international knowledge. (Herman Cain blithely declared that it was immaterial which leader ran “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”) By Election Day, polls showed that Mr. Obama was far more trusted on foreign policy than the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

And there is a keen awareness that a potential Democratic front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a seasoned, diplomatic, well-traveled stateswoman and internationally celebrated figure (who, as she will eagerly tell you in her new book, is on a first-name basis with the president of Tanzania).

“No one is going to doubt that Hillary has significant foreign policy experience,” said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “At best, these Republicans have got a few years as a governor of a border state or in the Senate. It’s just not going to look as good by comparison.”

Republican operatives said Mr. Christie had time to catch up, and they pointed to the models of Mr. Romney and George W. Bush, two state chief executives who committed themselves, early on in their governorships, to the rigorous study of global affairs. Mr. Romney invited specialists such as Frederick W. Kagan, a former military historian at West Point, to brief him in Boston, and studied custom-made booklets with the names of world leaders. Mr. Bush held Sunday night conference calls with a team of advisers nicknamed the Vulcans, including Ms. Rice, Stephen Hadley and Paul Wolfowitz.

“My view is that he’ll have work to do, but he’s up to the task,” said Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, who was interviewing Christie at the event in Georgia when the governor talked about Crimea. (Brooks declined to comment on the exchange.)

Ari Fleischer, Mr. Bush’s former press secretary, said there was a narrow window for a candidate like Mr. Christie to immerse himself in the subject, before the rigors and pressures of a campaign begin.

“It becomes essential,” Mr. Fleischer said. “If you make a mistake, particularly later in 2015, and certainly in 2016, it will become magnified way beyond the mistake itself.

“This is the time to do it,” he said.

mitt romney - United States - North America - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Barack Obama - U.S. Republican Party - George W. Bush - Hillary Clinton - Chris Christie - New Jersey - Ronald Reagan - Bashar Assad - Ukraine - Condoleezza Rice - Rand Paul - Crimea - Henry Kissinger - Robert Zoellick - Herman Cain - Ari Fleischer


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