The Chris Christie doctrine on foreign policy: What would Tony Soprano do?

Believe it or not, Christie still thinks his bullying behavior is a political asset — especially on the world stage

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 10, 2015 3:20PM (EDT)

Chris Christie                   (AP/Jim Cole)
Chris Christie (AP/Jim Cole)

It's hard to know if New Jersey governor Chris Christie will be able to restore the luster he once had as a serious candidate for president. There was a time when he was considered a front-runner, an inevitable player in 2016, but the combination of a large field and his own inept performance have taken a toll. Nobody's talking about Christie as the guy to beat anymore.

He hasn't been indicted, which has to be a big relief. As you'll recall, however, quite a few of his closest aides were, and a cloud still hangs over his head. Even more problematic than that has been his state's terrible financial woes:

With each day last week, the news about New Jersey’s troubled fiscal condition grew worse.

A gaping $807 million hole in the state budget. Warnings that the state may not be able to make its promised pension payments. The threat of slashing property-tax rebates or school funding. And yet another downgrade of New Jersey’s already-low credit rating — the fifth one under the Republican governor’s watch.

At the heart of these budget problems is a sputtering New Jersey economy, which has brought in billions less in tax revenue than Christie has forecast over the past three years.

Christie caught a bit of break this week when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a potentially disastrous case regarding the pension system. His much ballyhooed reforms turned out to be insufficient when the state's revenues took a nose dive, so Christie took it upon himself to unilaterally slash even more spending without the approval of the state legislature. Public sector unions sued but the court sided with Christie in a 5-2 decision, sparing him the need to revise the state budget at the worst possible time. This is what the Christie camp considers good news these days.

But despite his damaged reputation and his low numbers in the polls, it's early and he's not giving up. In fact, you can see the outlines of a new offensive in some of his recent comments on the trail. Where we might have expected to see him sell himself as a tax-cutting, no-nonsense boss of a big bureaucracy, it appears he thinks he can instead persuade people that his reputation for being a bullying jerk is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to being Commander in Chief of the world's only superpower. Lately he's been telling everyone all about his plans to make America's enemies cower if they dare to look at him sideways.

You'll recall that he went to Europe a few months back, just like a number of other governors without any foreign policy experience at all, so that they can get some pictures with foreign leaders, pretending to know what they're talking about. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, pretty much declared war on half the world and put the rest on notice that they could be next. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made news when he informed the world that certain British cities had "no-go" neighborhoods where non-Muslims feared to tread --- which came as a big surprise to the many non-Muslims who live and work in those neighborhoods. Scott Walker proved just how little he knows about anything other than cheese curds and the Rapture. But of all the embarrassing GOP governors who make fools of themselves on foreign shores, Christie's performance may have been the most embarrassing. Politico called it "Chris Christie's Weeklong Trainwreck":

The Republican governor started a trip to London by bobbling a question about whether measles vaccinations should be mandatory. The next day he snapped at a reporter who tried to ask him about foreign policy. He faced questions about a new federal investigation into his administration and came under scrutiny for his taste in luxurious travel. And back at home in New Jersey, for the first time in his tenure, fellow Republicans in the statehouse threatened to buck him.

He did manage to prove once and for all that his abrasive, rude personality is totally authentic, so there's that.

Christie didn't have a lot to say about foreign policy on his trip but he hasn't been shy about telling Americans why he thinks he is the guy who can straighten out all these thorny global problems: He doesn't take any crap from kindergarten teachers and he won't take any from tinhorn dictators either. This report from last fall describes how Christie sees himself on the world stage:

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.”

People at the event were described as finding his foreign policy commentary "uncomfortable to watch." Imagine that. Brian Beutler at the New Republic wryly observed that it was easy to imagine a President Christie on a long overseas trip "stepping on rakes" everywhere he goes because unlike all the other clumsy and cloddish GOP Governors abroad, his entire appeal, such as it is, is based upon his in-your-face bullying. It's pretty much all he has to offer and there's every chance that he'd destroy relationships left and right. But as Beutler pointed out, that might be the optimistic view:

[I]t's equally possible Christie knows Putin wouldn't be rattled by a humiliating, Jersey-style tongue-lash—and believes that only actual force, rather than just forceful words, would give Putin pause.

Apparently, Beutler was right. In New Hampshire this week, he made that explicit talking about how he would deal with China:

Christie called for a "military approach" to China's advances to "let them know there are limits to what they're allowed to do."

"That is an issue that we can handle militarily by going out there and making sure that we show them that we don't respect their claims to these artificial islands in the South China Sea that they're building that they're saying are theirs that are hundreds and hundreds of miles from the coast of China and are clearly in international waters," Christie said adding: "We need to send that signal to the Chinese very clearly that we do not acknowledge nor will we respect their claims to those areas."

It would appear that he does believe that if he were president the U.S. military would be an extension of his massive ego and very big mouth. Luckily for the world, at this moment Chris Christie does not look as if he will be president of the United States any time soon. (And even if he were doing better in the polls he'd have some stiff competition for the prize of most unhinged bellicose rhetoric ---Senator Lindsey Graham is a shoo-in for that title.) But it's yet more evidence of a Republican Party that is working itself up into a full blown frenzy over foreign policy. If they aren't fear mongering about "ISIS in America" they're talking about invading Iraq or Russia or China, perhaps all at the same time.

It's a complicated world and there are plenty of dangers to be worried about. But with these candidates running all over the world behaving like rank amateurs and rattling sabers in all directions, it has to look to the rest of the world as if the world's only superpower is the biggest danger of all.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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2016 Elections Chris Christie Foreign Policy New Jersey The Republican Party The Republican Primary