November 23, 2011
Yesterday’s Republican debate covered foreign policy and national security. Obama’s success overseas* has made it hard for Republicans to gain points by directly attacking his record, and most candidates last night chose wisely instead to differentiate themselves from each other. (Indeed the eventual Republican nominee will need to focus more on the President’s domestic record, namely the economy and job creation, to emerge victorious.)
Full of empty promises that glossed over the complexities of governing the world, the occasion did offer a taste of what kind of world the candidates would usher in.
Here’s a round up:
Michele Bachmann – Showed in discussing America’s Pakistan policy that she’s worked hard to improve her grasp of foreign affairs. But still her assessments of what America is up against and how to respond rarely if ever rose above tired and cliched. “We have to realize we’re in a very different war, with very different techniques that are used for that war, and very different bad actors than we’ve had before in the terrorists and their motivations are very different.” She resorted more to fear than common sense, saying for example, “Iran is waiting in the wings,” and Al Qaeda is here. “These weapons could find their way out of — out of Pakistan, into New York City or into Washington, D.C., and a nuclear weapon could be set off in this city. That’s how serious this is. We have to maintain an American presence.” Some Americans live for fear and will love her for it.
Herman Cain – Appeared to be making up his overseas philosophy as he went along, his eyes letting off a little twinkle each time a question turned out to be less difficult than that one on Libya. Showed a remarkable ability to frame the obvious like it were a profound revelation that only the man of 9-9-9 could deliver, saying in earnest things like, “We can do — we can do — targeted identification. If you take a look at the people who are trying to kill us, it would be easy to figure out exactly what that identification profile looks like.” Reminded America that, “We would use our military might if we have to!”
Jon Huntsman – Conveyed a sensitivity to what’s possible and what’s at stake. Said America must act decisively – he supports Special Forces and drones – but we’ve also got to lead by example, without which our goals are harder to reach. “We forget sometimes that we have a name brand in this world. And I have seen it shine living overseas. And when our light shines based on the values that we live up to and represent, it moves people, it moves countries, it moves events like nothing else can.” Didn’t mislead the public into thinking America’s capacity to fix the world is limitless. “Let me just say that as we talk about foreign policy, let’s be reminded that in order to have an effective foreign policy we need a Washington that works.” It’s puzzling to me why this guy can’t get more traction.
Mitt Romney – Said America needs to rein in its debt. Later insisted we need to act more unilaterally. “I believe that American military superiority is the right course…President Obama says that we have people throughout the world with common interests. I just don’t agree with him.” In other words, forget alliances, we’ll foot overseas operations on our own – and fix our spending. He went on to distort the President’s position, accusing him of thinking we’re entering “an Asian century…apologizing for America” and running the country like “just another nation with a flag.” Made clear that if he’s the nominee the American public we’ll have to sit through another season of nasty Republican attacks.
Ron Paul – Summed up his foreign policy vision with the declaration, “I say, why don’t we mind our own business.” That benign idealism goes down great in theory but disregards the hard realities of geopolitics in the 21st century and applied in its totality would all but ensure America’s demise. I find it hard not to like Paul on a personal level, who is on record as saying that killing Osama bin Laden was “absolutely not necessary.” That’s not a position I – or 99 percent of Americans – share. But in a political era dictated by pollsters and flip-floppery, it is refreshingly honest. He’s also a reminder of how far Congress has drifted from our founding principles. And we need reminding.
Newt Gingrich – Strayed from the party line to sound at once compassionate and pragmatic on immigration: “I do believe if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the U.S., we should deport you. I do believe we should control the border. I do believe we should have very severe penalties for employers…I don’t see how the — the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.” Focused on issues rather than attack Obama to persuade voters. Showed sensitivity to the need to preserve civil liberties and at the same time have the tools necessary to weed out terrorists. “I think it’s desperately important that we preserve your right to be innocent until proven guilty, if it’s a matter of criminal law. But if you’re trying to find somebody who may have a nuclear weapon that they are trying to bring into an American city, I think you want to use every tool that you can possibly use to gather the intelligence.” Unfortunately, as Glenn Greenwald at Salon recently noted, “The U.S. Government — in the name of terrorism — has aggressively para-militarized the nation’s domestic police forces by lavishing them with countless military-style weapons and other war-like technologies, training them in war-zone military tactics, and generally imposing a war mentality on them,” and this has challenged the vital separation Gingrich is calling for.
Rick Perry – The walking cartoon transcended his image when he said soberly that the US has a habit of “writing blank checks to these countries” like Pakistan “and then letting them decide how these dollars are going to be spent.” Yet even at his best it’s hard not to watch Perry without bracing for another “oops” moment. At the same time, makes you wonder how in the heck some of these candidates – including Cain and Bachmann – get a serious look from registered Republicans. Say what you will about Democratic presidential nominees over the years, but it’s hard to think of a serious Democratic nominee that’s looked as unpresidential as these three candidates. And it wasn’t Democrats who propelled George W. Bush to a second term after witnessing one of the most catastrophic first terms in US history. It all raises the question of to what degree reason still governs voting decisions in a party whose core has shifted radically right in recent years.
Rick Santorum – Said Africa had been “a country on the brink.” Also endorsed profiling of Muslim extremists to keep our country safe: “If you look at — I mean, obviously, it was — obviously, Muslims would be — would be someone you’d look at, absolutely. Those are the folks who are — the radical Muslims are the people that are committing these crimes, as we’ve — by and large, as well as younger males.” I can think of two explanations as to why that comment didn’t get more scrutiny – one, he’s not a frontrunner. Two, public and media opinion are on his side.
* Looking past our expensive lingering in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and the sustained affronts to civil liberties like the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, the Obama Administration has dramatically improved America’s standing in the world while advancing the national interest through a shrewd mix of consensus building (Libya, Iran, etc.) and unilateralism (taking out Osama bin Laden). It has foiled a number of terrorist plots and seriously disrupted the Islamic extremist agenda. It has strengthened alliances around the world and forged new ones to effectively challenge China economically and militarily in its backyard of Southeast Asia, to pressure Iran through economic sanctions (rather than pander to Israel’s war cries), and to advance military and economic interests in Africa.