CHARLESTON, S.C. — Former Gov. Rick Perry, looking to show he has the personal background to inform an alarming worldview, used South Carolina's military college on Monday as the backdrop for a sweeping indictment of President Obama's foreign policy and a presentation of his own proposals to reassert American influence abroad.
Chief among his complaints — and by far the best received among the couple hundred cadets gathered to hear him — was the president's emerging agreement with Iran to scale back its nuclear capacity. The negotiations leading to the nascent deal with Iranian officials, Perry said, have "served to legitimize, not limit, their nuclear ambitions."
"Should I run for president and be so fortunate to be elected, one of my first actions in office would be to invalidate the president's Iran agreement, which jeopardizes the safety and security of the free world," Perry said. "No agreement is better than a bad agreement."
Perry's promise came amid a roughly half-hour speech that found him in otherwise familiar territory, denouncing Obama's foreign policy as rudderless and light on the truth-telling needed to confront a dangerous world. Obama's State of the Union address, Perry suggested, may be better titled a "State of Delusion address."
"Americans deserve better," Perry told the cadets. "You deserve better."
Perry repeatedly sought to personalize his foreign policy concerns with nostalgic references to his own military resume, which includes a tenure as a U.S. Air Force pilot. It's a part of his biography he's emphasizing as he positions himself to be the only major 2016 presidential candidate to have served in the military.
Perry eased into the address by harkening back to 1968, when his dad dropped him off at Texas A&M University into the "loving hands" of the Corps of Cadets with a singular demand: Make a man out of him. Perry recalled adjusting to life as a fish — A&M's blanket title for freshmen — and quickly learning that "no matter where you come from, we're all the same."
"This brings back good memories for me," Perry said as he peered out over the crowd of uniforms. "Different time, different place, but a very familiar culture."
It's a culture, Perry later said, that hangs in the balance as the U.S. military dwindles in size to what it was in 1940. He laid blame on both parties for scaling back the U.S. military while other nations ramp up, citing politicians who have "refused to impose spending discipline on other areas" of the federal budget. And he made reference to the "Republican-led Congress," which has been making "some progress" on boosting defense spending but not enough.
"If I were president today, I would reframe the entire defense debate – from what do we have left over to spend on defense, to what must we spend to keep America safe," Perry said.
Like many Republicans with their sights set on the White House, Perry has been deeply skeptical of Obama's ability to strike a deal with Iran that sufficiently curtails its nuclear powers. During a swing through Iowa last month, he advised the next president to "tear up" whatever agreement was in the works and "throw that in the trash can." Since then, he's made sure to be front and center on the issue, most notably adding his name to a letter from 47 Republican senators to Tehran that warned the Iranian government the next occupant of the White House could undo the agreement.
Perry told reporters after his speech Monday that if he were president, he would not enter talks with Iran until it disassociated with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
"If they're enemies of Israel, they're friends of Iran," Perry said as he strolled through the Citadel campus. "My point is, until they get out of the terrorism business, I wouldn't have any negotiations with them at all, and I would up the ante, so to speak, on the sanctions and literally economically bring them to their knees."
On his tour, Perry struck an introspective tone as he inspected the plaques identifying planes and tanks, quizzing his guides on the specific armored divisions and connecting the sights with his 2000 visit to Normandy with his dad. He sized up a room in the barracks, swinging the door open and closed to show how cramped his own quarters were. And he ran into a slew of officials who jogged his memory of his Air Force days.
"Many hours sitting on a green ramp with a parachute on," a colonel told Perry, who simply responded, "Yes, sir."
Among those accompanying Perry on the tour: John Santorum, the son of Rick Santorum — one of Perry's potential rivals for the GOP nomination in 2016. The two took a photo together, and Perry promised Santorum he'd send it to his dad the first chance he got.