Republicans on National Security -- Is This the Best You Can Do, Really?
Posted by David Shorr
If nothing else, devoting an entire GOP campaign forum to national security and foreign policy -- the CBS News / National Journal organizers called it the "Commander in Chief Debate -- helps accentuate the preparation and seriousness the candidates have devoted to international affairs. Or the lack thereof, since some candidates appeared utterly unserious and unprepared.
First, a quick best and worst. It was no contest for best: Jon Huntsman. Gov. Huntsman's quotient of substance to platitudes / cheap applause lines was way above everyone else. Of course, foreign policy seriousness is a pillar of his candidacy (bless him). And of course his poll numbers have been stuck in the basement. If there are any centrist Republicans among our readers, this man is trying to rescue you from the fire-breathers. (BTW, another very interesting moment was Rick Santorum's answers on Pakistan, where he seemed to employ the same strategy as Huntsman.)
Worst was also an easy call: Herman Cain. The man said almost nothing of substance tonight -- and "almost" might be too generous. He keeps reaching for the same line about how presidents have plenty of advisors and don't really have to know anything. "Herman Cain, the candidate who will make up for his ignorance by seeking a lot of advice." Don't know if that's going to work. At one point, Cain tossed in the word strategically a couple of times because, you know, that sounds commander-in-chiefish.
To the extent that issues were debated (not all that much), the most interesting were Iran and China, which were the subjects of other posts here on DA. On Iran, Kelsey explains that every idea raised by the candidates either is already an element of President Obama's policy of pressuring Iran over its nuclear program (particularly amusing were all the loud calls for covert action), or would have disastrous unintended consequences. When the debate moderator posed the Iran question, he specifically asked the candidates to name steps the Obama administration wasn't already taking. The moderators (bless them) made a game effort throughout the proceedings to spur the candidates to speak in practical terms.
Then on China, Jacob points out that a full-blown confrontation over their over-valuation of the Chinese currency is unlikely to work and could lead to a counterproductive trade war. Again, big points to Huntsman for calling Mitt Romney out on this. The larger problem for the discussion was indeed the major disconnect between the candidates prescriptions / slogans and the real world challenge of getting other players to comply with America's wishes. (For a similarly downbeat assessment of the debate, see Ron Fournier of debate co-sponsor National Journal.)
Most of the candidates are using the same foreign policy strategy: think of something that sounds tougher than President Obama's policy -- or tougher than what you can get people to believe about current policy -- and never mind whether your recommendation would fly in the real world. Thus we have Rick Perry's idea of taking US foreign aid back to a zero base for all countries and reassess whether the recipients deserve our aid, i.e. whether they support America's every move. Ruling out negotiations with the Taliban was another big idea tonight, which begs the question of whether you believe in the importance of a political solution in Afghanistan.
Then there were the full-throated defenses of American greatness. During one of Mitt Romney's answers I tried to count the number of times he said America. Rick Perry plowed those fields by attempting a hard-to-follow riff on President Reagan's "ash heap of history line" (Fournier noted the same Perry moment). But seriously does anyone outside the 30% of Americans who make up the hard core of the GOP base believe that America's problem is that we don't throw our weight around enough?? I've been thinking about Teddy Roosevelt lately. These Republicans are only taking half of TR's advice about walking softly and carrying sticks.
Speaking of the Republican base, the debate audience once again proved its maturity aggressive self-righteousness. In past debates, people in the crowd have cheered for the death penalty and depriving people of health care or booed gays in the armed services or moderators pressing Herman Cain on his problems with women. Tonight the big thing was getting tough with terror suspects, including a few candidates who see no problem with torture. (The candidates' statements on detainee treatment barely qualifies as a debate, but James gamely picks apart their nonsense.)