Politics Stops at the Water’s Edge

After two foreign-policy debates, we still have no idea what most Republican presidential candidates would do about the actual issues facing America abroad.


Tuesday night was the tenth Republican presidential debate athis year nd the second to focus on national security and foreign policy. One would think that after this many discussions among the GOP aspirants, voters would have a clear sense of how a Republican commander-in-chief would deal with the myriad foreign-policy issues he (or she!) will find on his plate in January 2013.

Think again. Maybe this is the penalty one pays for watching too many of these dog-and-pony shows; maybe it was the numerous and occasionally inane questions about foreign-policy topics that seemed more relevant two election cycles ago (TSA patdowns? Really?); or maybe it was the parade of former Bush administration officials asking questions (David Addington and Mark Thiessen both weighed in; apparently John Yoo had made other plans).

In any case, those Americans looking for answers to questions about foreign policy issues the next president will actually be dealing with on foreign policy were likely to be disappointed. China and the Far East in general didn’t come up — and this just after President Barack Obama had returned from a weeklong visit to the region. There was nothing on the boiling Eurozone crisis, the current violence in Egypt, or climate change — and surprisingly little on defense cuts or the future of the military, despite the recent meltdown of the congressional "supercommittee" charged with carrying out such cuts.

What we got instead could best be summarized by Mitt Romney’s answer to a question on Somalia’s al-Shabab terrorists:

"President Obama feels that we’re going to be a nation which has multipolar balancing militaries. 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. I think there are people in the world that want to oppress other people that are evil. President Obama seems to think that we’re going to have a global century, an Asian century. I believe we have to have an American century, where America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world. President Obama apologizes for America. It is time for us to be strong as a nation."

Besides being a rather blatant mischaracterization of Obama’s foreign-policy views (and, no, Obama has not apologized for America), this chest-beating answer provided zero insight into how Romney would achieve his goal of a strong, exceptional, and unapologetic America — and certainly not into how he would pay for it. It was simply red meat for Republican partisans — as was his amazing claim that there is "no price that is too expensive to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon." Romney can’t possible believe this.

But such simplicity was par for the course. Indeed, to listen to the GOP candidates on Iran is to think that an American president can use a little military force here, drop a few sanctions there, and voilà, the Iranian nuclear program will be stopped dead in its tracks. It took poor former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to make the somewhat obvious point that there is little the United States can do, even with stronger sanctions, to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb.

Listening to Republican debates, one gets the sense that diplomacy is easy, U.S. power is unquestioned and feared (or at least should be), and every global challenge to the United States is an existential threat. But then again, this has been the debating style of everyone not named Huntsman or Paul: Say as little of substance as possible, stick to platitudes, and blame Obama for everything. Indeed, in a question on foreign aid, Romney somehow figured out a way to get in an attack against "Obamacare."

Or take, for example, the discussion on Afghanistan. Huntsman again offered a coherent and nuanced answer on what the United States should do after it begins to draw down troops — a process that has already started. For this suggestion he got attacked by Romney, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain, all of whom suggested that a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan will endanger U.S. security — and used it as an opportunity to attack the president for not slavishly following the wishes of military commanders on the ground. It wasn’t clear if they were oblivious to or simply ignoring the fact that if one of them becomes president in 2013, a good portion of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan will have already begun to come home. The issue then will be how to manage that departure. Yet this was at pace with a debate focused more on the past and the present than on the future.

It’s almost reached the point where one has to feel sorry for Huntsman. Here is a candidate who actually seems to have an understanding of the subtleties inherent in discussing international relations. He appears to have an actual grasp on the limits of American power and its global capabilities. This was, by far, his strongest debate performance of the year and, from a substantive standpoint, the best of the evening. Along with Ron Paul, he is the lone voice among the eight GOP wannabes arguing for restraint and modesty in U.S. foreign policy and the importance of upholding the rule of law and defending America’s values on a global stage. For this and other apostasies, he remains mired at the bottom of the polls.

Then there was the duo of Perry and Cain, who in a foreign-policy debate are like children at the adult’s table on Thanksgiving. Perry’s recent call for a no-fly zone over Syria was eviscerated by Romney, who pointed out that the Syrian government isn’t actually dropping bombs from the air on its own people. Even Michele Bachmann tore apart Perry’s argument that the United States should stop providing foreign assistance to Pakistan. When Bachmann is calling you naive in a foreign- policy debate, it might be time to hang up your spurs. (Cain, for his part, stuck to bromides about how he would only approve programs that worked.)

On the question of foreign aid, which Paul contends is a waste of money, Santorum offered an impassioned defense. He said that such assistance is an important means of promoting American "values." This sentiment might have been more persuasive if not for the fact that, earlier in the debate, Santorum had called for the racial profiling of American Muslims at U.S. airports.

Finally, there was Newt Gingrich, the new GOP frontrunner — or as Republicans like to call that position "not Mitt Romney." Gingrich was, surprisingly, on his best behavior: He didn’t yell at the moderator, call anyone dumb, or deride any of the questions. He even had nice words for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for many years, saying it would be wrong to deport them and break up families.

Such humane comments about illegal aliens helped to sink Perry’s candidacy, and they might have the same impact on Gingrich’s among Tea Party conservatives. But they did offer a glimpse of a more generous side to a candidate who, according to recent polling, is the least likable of all the GOP nominees. Time will tell how much damage they will do.

Lest anyone think that Gingrich has gotten fully in touch with his kinder, gentler side he still had harsh words for nominal U.S. ally Pakistan, which garnered some of the loudest applause of the debate; called for regime change in Iran; and offered a rather disturbing rationale for violating civil liberties at home in support of national security. Little of what he said had any real relationship to how international diplomacy actually works or the tools that will be at the next president’s disposal. Still, his "restrained," even confident performance was enough for many to anoint him last night’s big winner.

So who lost? Well, that would be anyone looking for a clear sense of how a Republican president would manage America’s role in the world. Again.

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