The low quality of the Republican candidates’ statements on foreign policy has been so appalling that I feel we need a catalog of the various types of foolishness. So with a second debate focusing on these issues taking place this evening, let’s review.
Life imitating comedy
We’re all familiar with the role of Comedy Central Stewart-Colbert duo as soothsayers for our troubled times. This holds true for the low level of Republican foreign policy debate as much as anywhere. As I wrote last spring, the prize for encapsulating the problem goes to Stephen Colbert’s lament over Donald Trump’s exit from the race. Colbert fretted over the loss by wondering: “Who’s gonna tell OPEC the fun is over?” followed by a comment on China that included one of broadcasting’s seven forbidden words. The point, of course, being that maybe it isn’t so easy for a US president to tell China or oil exporting countries to get with the program.
But even with my expectations suitably adjusted, I never imagined that one of the candidates, Rep. Michele Bachmann, would actually seek Trump’s advice on how to deal with OPEC and China. If we really close this circle, though, we’d have to note the possibility that in consulting with Trump, Bachmann was really taking foreign policy advice from the Colbert Report.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Gov. Mitt Romney at the last foreign policy debate said: “One thing you can know, and that is if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
President Obama in response: ”Now is this an easy issue? No, anyone who claims it is, is either politicking or doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Other than the obvious question of who sounds more credible, I don’t have too much to add. Then again, maybe Romney is echoing Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign strategy.
It sounded good at the time
My main explanation for a lot of this blather coming from the candidates is that they’re taking their party’s standard arguments/talking points and stretching them without any thought of a breaking point. For instance, Republicans love to talk about “commanders on the ground” — i.e. those to whom politicians should defer. Which led Gov. Rick Perry to say the following at last weekend’s values voter forum in Des Moines:
There is a time and a place for us to intervene, and intervene militarily. But when we intervene militarily, we best make the decision on how we are going to win and how we are going to win convincingly and quickly, send those young men and women with the equipment to win. Don’t let some congressman sitting in an air-conditioned office in Washington DC deciding what the rules of engagement are. … And for us to micromanage them, in a civilian way, without their commanders truly in charge, is absolutely irresponsible and as commander-in-chief of this country I will not let it happen.
The problem with this, though — as ThinkProgress helpfully reminds us — is that our democratic system is premised on civilian control of the military. Notwithstanding the presence or absence of air-conditioning, Gov. Perry has it backwards: politicians actually sit at the top of the chain of command. The military doesn’t order itself into battle; we don’t let the armed services decide matters of war and peace on behalf of the nation.
Another example related to civilians’ versus the military’s role: putting terrorist suspects on trial. As I’ve written here before, the right wing tries to argue that only the military justice system is tough enough to deal with terrorists — despite the fact that regular civilian courts, investigators and prosecutors have a much stronger record of trial and conviction. On this issue, Congress is the greater culprit, as National Security Network explains in their critique of legislation currently being debated.
If President Obama is for it, then…
The success of the NATO operation to support Libyan rebels’ ouster of Moammar Gaddafi has presented Obama’s Republican challengers with a very difficult problem: how do you criticize it? In writing about Mitt Romney’s positions on Libya, ABC News’ Jake Tapper counts no less than five (!) stances.
In comparison with Romney’s winding journey, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Libya pronouncements have lurched wildly within a matter of days, as documented by Talking Points Memo and (again) the Colbert Report. And of course Herman Cain’s five-minute on-camera meltdown at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is by now legend.
Among the revelations when you watch it is to see him wrestle with the question, “exactly how would I have outshined Obama’s disastrous performance.” Oddly, his big idea seems to have been that Obama didn’t look closely enough at the intelligence. But then, with Cain it always seems to come down to relying on others to provide information and advice, rather than having to actually know anything…
…speaking of which. I won’t belabor all the gaffes from Cain and the others. Just to say the following. No, you don’t have to know who’s the president of Uzbekistan in order to run for President. You just have to refrain from mocking the name of another country or playing to the worst images of Americans as incurious or dismissive of the world beyond our borders.
Illustration: Boris Rasin