I did not do a post immediately after the first GOP debate on foreign policy on November 12 (I was in Montreal for that Saturday night debate) nor for the most recent one on November 22. Both events were interesting, in part because of the differences among the candidates, but also because of the surprisingly (to me) nuanced positions of candidates such as Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, neither of whom has displayed that trait on domestic issues. It would have been truly surprising, if not jaw-dropping, if I could say the same about Rick Perry or Herman Cain.
Perry and Cain are simply out of their league in discussing international matters, not that they are evoking memories of William F. Buckley when the topics are closer to home. CBS and The National Journal, sponsors of the earlier event, labeled it “The Commander-in-Chief Debate,” an appellation that gives one considerable pause when viewing this entire group of candidates.
Cain, for his part, seems to have the same answer to every question. He would assemble the best possible people, listen to their advice, and make a decision based on common sense. There is nothing wrong with that answer, of course, other than that he is using it to mask a total lack of knowledge on any subject. The first debate preceded his embarrassing response to the question on Libya. By the time of the second debate he demonstrated that he did know a fact, in this case that Iran is a mountainous country. The purpose of sharing that knowledge with us is that it would make an Israeli strike on Iran highly unlikely. He did not go on to explain, however, the implications of his insight for the American military action in Afghanistan. Presumably, he would not even have embarked on George Bush’s lukewarm attempt to track down Osama Bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains.
Perry is simply hopeless in a debate format, although it is becoming increasingly clear that debates are doing a very good job of demonstrating his level of knowledge and capabilities. What does he think is the preeminent security threat to the United States? It is the 35,000 “forced abortions” that occure in China every day (according to him). Commander-in-Chief qualifications? He is the only one on stage with such experience since he commands the Texas National Guard. This Palinesque answer did not explain how the other two former Governors did not also have the experience. Finally, he revealed the startling information that Hamas and Hezbollah are both active in Mexico.
Rick Santorum surprised me in his ability to address the complexity of certain issues with a level of sophistication. Although he opposed President Obama’s elimination of torture and supports profiling of Muslims, he spoke in favor of the necessity of foreign aid for strategic reasons, and opposed a “cowboy” response to a nuclear weapon ending up in the wrong hands in Pakistan. Unfortunately, his idea of the most serious threat to the United States is socialism in Central America. (Even Herman Cain referred to cyber-attacks.)
Michele Bachmann continues to mix occasional bouts of lucidity with downright zaniness. She also recognizes the strategic importance of foreign aid and the complexities of dealing with a Pakistan that has dozens of nuclear weapons. She rightly criticized Rick Perry for naivete in saying he would zero out foreign aid until the Pakistani government came around to his way of thinking (a scary thought if ever there were one). But in both debates she talked about the President allowing the ACLU to run the CIA on interrogating suspects, even though the Army’s Field Intelligence Manual is the source for such matters.
Newt Gingrich was Newt Gingrich, although perhaps because of his significant rise in the polls replacing Herman Cain as Romney’s main challenger, he may be tempering his Newtness. There are still, however, moments. In the first debate, he referenced the “mess” we got into with the Church Committee in the 1970′s as a reason why we have some many international problems. Senator Frank Church was a liberal Democratic foreign policy leader. Newt does not mention that since the Church Committee, there have been 20 years of Republican Presidents, 11 of Democratic ones and a period when Newt himself was Speaker of the House. When asked in that debate for examples of “thinking out of the box,” he cited the views of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. I do not know what box he is in, but clearly it is not one of conservative orthodoxy. Notwithstanding his typical rhetorical excesses, he did have at least two memorable statements. He said that because of the threat of terror, “all of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives.” While I think that is, regrettably, true, it was nice to hear Newt not blame this reality on Barack Obama or the socialists in the Democratic Party. The other one, of course, is his comment that there may be a “subset” of undocumented immigrants – defined by Gingrich as in the country for 25 years, taxpayers, church-goers – that the “family-friendly” GOP will not want arrested and deported but allowed to remain in the country. If this limited humane approach results in his disavowal by GOP voters, I am not sure we would need to know much more about the people controlling the Republican Party.
Mitt Romney was also Mitt Romney with, unfortunately, none of the surprises we got from Gingrich. While engaging in his ritualistic assertions of the President’s inadequacy, he ended up stating positions remarkably similar to Obama’s. Use of drones was acceptable, killing the American al Qaeda member was OK, and he was concerned about the low approval of the United States in Afghanistan. This concern about America’s image abroad seems to run counter to what he calls Obama’s “apologizing” for the United States. I think Romney may have been either off his game in the second debate or he is, not surprisingly, starting to wear thin. He said little of note, relying on his standard (and factually inaccurate) shots at the Administration. He continues to zing at Rick Perry as if he is the primary threat to his nomination, even though Perry has been consistently polling in the low single digits after his meteoric rise evaporated. What does Romney think is the biggest threat to American security? Hezbollah in Latin America.
There were two beacons of hope in these debates. Ron Paul continues to strike his theme of the importance of personal liberty, usually in the context of the abuses from the Patriot Act and the torturing of prisoners. Jon Huntsman also shares these views and has the additional appeal of having actually thought about foreign policy issues (although I do not often agree with him). Paul’s appeal appears to be limited to a hard core percentage of the Republican base, and does not seem to have much upside. Huntsman, while not polling well, is the lone candidate who goes after the sophistry of the front-running Romney. Because each of these candidates fails to adhere to the strict ideology of the Republican base, it is unlikely that either of them will move forward.
Finally, a brief word about the broadcasts. The first debate, sponsored by CBS and The National Journal featured several questions I thought werer emarkably inane. Santorum was asked not once, but twice, what he would do if a terrorist acquired a nuclear weapon in Pakistan. While that may be a useful question for a hopeful screenwriter for “24,” – and is an unquestioned threat of considerable importance – it is a matter of tactics on a one-time matter. I do not recall a single question on Israeli-Palestinian relations which has the potential for much more considerable influence on international policy. CBS also televised only the first 60 minutes of the 90-minute debate because of the importance of cutting to a re-run of one of their regular programs. The second debate, televised on CNN and sponsored by the conservative think tanks Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, was notable for its audience. It was a polite reserved group, most of whom were dressed in – yes – conservative suits. When Wolf Blitzer went to the audience for a question, in at least half the instances I recognized the questioner. While I am not exactly a Washington insider, if I know something about members of the audience asking questions, it is not exactly a Tea Party gathering. But the debate format was interesting. No defined speaking limits and a chance for some real back and forth.