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Chris Christie Wants to Arm Wrestle Vladimir Putin, Basically

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Say what you will about the tenets of not doing "stupid shit," at least it’s an ethos. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, by contrast, appears to have taken his organizing foreign policy principle from Travis Bickle:

Mr. Christie, usually known for his oratorical sure-footedness, offered a wobbly reply, displaying little grasp of the facts and claiming that if he were in charge, Vladimir V. 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.”

The swagger-based critique of President Obama’s foreign policy isn’t new. But the intersection of swagger-based foreign policy and Chris Christie’s unique reliance on swagger as a base-building political tool will be fascinating to watch.

Back in 2006, when John McCain’s presidential candidacy was still in its infancy, and Iraq was enduring the last throes of the insurgency, he told a room full of wealthy conservative donors, “One of the things I would do if I were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit.’”

His critics rightly mocked him. And eventually McCain dropped the head-knocking pretense and settled on a policy of indefinite occupation. If anything, Christie has more faith than McCain in the power of the dress-down. It’s easy to imagine him embarking on a long overseas trip to burnish his foreign policy bona fides and stepping on rakes at every destination. If that sounds like a familiar story, it’s because something similar happened to Mitt Romney in 2012. But Romney’s troubles stemmed from being a broken weathervane. Christie's problem is different. Unlike Romney, he enjoys a reputation as an undaunted operator. It's actually the crux of his entire political identity. And the risk is that in trying to live up to his domestic reputation abroad, he’d mouth off to his hosts on purpose, souring relations with them from the outset.

That’s actually the optimistic view. Because it'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. Which brings us back to the merits, such as they are, of not doing "stupid shit."