David Rothkopf

And the surprise winner of the Republican national security debate is…

The Republican national security debate made me feel young again. First, there was the audience at Constitution Hall, typically diverse — old white guys, fat old white guys, really old white guys, prematurely aging middle-aged white guys, and a few understandably unhappy looking women. But more importantly, there was the conversation. It reeked of 2004. ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican national security debate made me feel young again. First, there was the audience at Constitution Hall, typically diverse — old white guys, fat old white guys, really old white guys, prematurely aging middle-aged white guys, and a few understandably unhappy looking women. But more importantly, there was the conversation. It reeked of 2004. All of a sudden I was 48 again.

Shoot me.

But moving past that harsh personal reality … the Republican candidates apparently think that playing the "War on Terror" card is the way into voters’ hearts. They promoted torture. They embraced racially profiling Muslims. They feared the spread of terrorists across the Americas. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, they were all about terror. The urgency seemed just as palpable and vaguely crazed as it was back in the day. Amazingly … stunningly … the message from most of the Republican candidates, led by front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, reflected the first-hints of nostalgia for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Perhaps that was because some of the most prominent old white men in the audience were actually behind the Bush administration’s policies of invasion and violation of basic human rights. There was Paul Wolfowitz. There was David Addington. And then there was Ed Meese. Somewhere out there was John Birch.

Interestingly, in this context, the two standout performers in the debate were Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Both were willing to step away from the retro-masses of the Republican Party and talk about today’s economic concerns and challenge the over-reach and failed policies of the past decade. Paul, of course, once again embracing an end to the war on drugs (about which he is also right, as it happens), is too far out there to win. But Huntsman had a bit of a breakthrough. He is being strategic. He is focused on New Hampshire as the joke on Saturday Night Live had it. And performances like tonight’s could very well give him a shot there … at least more of a chance than he has appeared to have thus far.

Of course, Mitt Romney … and his deep, unwavering love for spending every possible penny on defense … remains the most likely candidate. That said, as a very shrewd observer of these things emailed me during the debate, Romney is the Al Gore of the Republican Party. Seems good on paper … and made of cardboard. Hard to love. Newt Gingrich may have done well, but he is a dog whistle only Republicans can hear. The press loves him because he abuses them and he seems like a more intelligent breed of bad candidate than Cain or Perry. 

Big losers tonight were viewers who did not get to hear anyone really address the big issues of our time — from the uprising in Tahrir Square that was strangely all but ignored to the crisis in the Eurozone to the rise of China and the BRICS. And CNN was also a loser for its hokey staging, game show style opening, and the flaccid if competent moderation that let the conversation remain moored in the past.

Strangely, the big winners were not actually in the room. Barack Obama was one. He won both because he looks so good next to these guys and because they showed him great deference in the degree to which they generally tip-toed around his real accomplishments. But even his triumph was transcended by the night’s biggest winner: Bibi Netanyahu. Somehow, he managed to get two of the candidates — Romney and Santorum — to publicly state their first trip as president would be to Israel. And Gingrich offered to work with Israel on a conventional invasion of Iran. And these were just a couple of the highlights. Bibi and his diplomatic team have masterfully played the perceived ambivalence of the Obama administration into a competition among Republicans to demonstrate who loves Israel the most. Which was yet another thing that made me feel young again … like back in the good old days when support for Israel was much more reflexive and, frankly, much easier.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola