What If They Threw a Candidate Debate on Foreign Policy?

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 advisers 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.

Hitting the issues

To the extent that issues were debated (not all that much), the most interesting were Iran and China, which my fellow Democracy Arsenal bloggers wrote about.  On Iran, Kelsey Hartigan 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 Stokes 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.

Pool Photo by the Associated Press


Brian F.
Brian F6 years ago

Will R. Excellent comments. All these clowns are rich with millions in the bank, and could care less about cutting social security and medicare, for the vast majority of Americans who need it, or will need it. They do represent an imperial ruling class that does not care or represent the values of most Americans. It's a shame that this crop of horrible candidates is all the republicans have to offer.

Louis N. Good point. Ron Paul is the only sane candidate who has intelligence, and wants to end our military involvement overseas, close our overseas bases, and stop being the world's policeman. Ron Paul also wants to legalize mariuanna. The thing I don't like about Ron Paul is his position on abortion, his desire to eliminate the EPA, medicare and social security, when he is a millionare himself and will never need social security or medicare. That is why I could never vote for Ron Paul or any republicans. But the republicans will never give him a chance anyway.

Louis N.
Louis N.6 years ago

Hi Everyone,

The RNC has been complicit in the marginalization of Dr. Paul, as well as the media blackout. We all know this. I have set up a little website to bring attention to this fact and to help Dr. Paul. It is not the kind of thing he would do (in fact he couldn't even acknowledge it without being summarily expelled from the GOP), but it IS the kind of thing I would do, ESPECIALLY after the last debate where Dr. Paul got a whole 90 seconds to speak. This must stop and by God it WILL stop, and YOU'RE going to help me stop it!

Go to http://RonPaulPromise.com and sign up please, and spread the word. I set up the site myself it has no ads and no profit, just a labor of love in defense of Dr. Paul.

Avril L.
Avril Lomas6 years ago

I think that it would be "fun" to have large map of the world (sans identifying titles and have some of these genius,s identify the location of the countries mentioned. and discuss the ramifications of certain actions.
For Herman Caine May I suggest either Libya or Uzbekistan (whilst explaining the value of such countries.) Although I think Miami or New York might be a stretch.
For Bachmann. China and the wisdom of chairman Mao,
For Romney ,any or all of the countries to which his corporation has outsourced job,s
Get the idea?Try it and be prepared to be amazed!

Sue Jones
Sue Jones6 years ago

Kenny W - I've evidently sent you a star this week so won't let me "star" you again. Just want you to know I appreciated your comment on Obama's presidency. Thanks.

Philip S.
Philip S6 years ago

The author of this article is a complete idiot for leaving out the only one in this race on either side that is not a war monger like our current president or any of the other republican candidates, the only one who has a different approach to the status quo. The only one who can bring about real meaningful change.

Mark M.
Mark M6 years ago

One of the best ways to disqualify a candidate for anything is the extent to which he/she insists they have answers to questions they clearly do not or choose not to understand. Except for Huntsman, who has business as well as some inside-the-real-world-of-nations experience, and Paul, who has given some honest thought to his positions (however disagreeable), the sum total of foreign policy and analytical gravitas among the candidates wouldn't fill a thimble. Pathetic. Yet they try to pass themselves off as ready-made leaders and diplomats. This is the level of talent the Republican'ts recruit or encourage to compete for POTUS? This is what the party brains think of the American people -- to try selling us assorted doofuses, cowboys, whiners, puppets, lobbyists, misogynists, and pretenders? You know the adage (so fill in the blank): you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a _____!

Kenny West
Kenny Wes6 years ago

Obama's has been so successful as a President that we are taking his successes for granted. For example we just had a military conflict with out the loss of one American life. Name one conflict in history that can compare to that, it borders on a miracle, When I think back I cannot think of one failure we've had in the last three years, (Oh except solyndra, lets focus on one bad investment or the gun running operation that like torture the bush administration started.) I don't think anyone could do a better job than he's done with what he's had to deal with, of course there's bachmann or a perry that could give us more jobs on drilling rigs or picking vegetables. Wake up and stop being complacent and appreciate what it's like to win for a change under intelligent leadership.

Kenny West
Kenny Wes6 years ago

I can't look at Mit Romney with out seeing a sweater tied around his neck. Republicans have made these debates funny to watch.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers6 years ago

Stop admiring these smirking parasites and giving them free publicity and credence. No one likes them but they are forced on you and you have no choice but their choice, and you believe them, and most of all, you take these fools seriously! 
We should be voting for Policies and not for people. If every other persons job can be taken over by computers why not them? I personally will not be happy until I see a computer take a politicians job! 
Politicians are less useful than my neighbours dog and considerably noisier, but while my neighbours dog costs me nothing and lives in a kennel. These bastards live in mansions paid by us! Yet they will not answer to me!
People'll look at this and say; 'Maaaad! We need politicians!' But do we? Really? And if we do. So much? Even when they're proved to be idiots? They took the place of the kings and the feudal lords and now instead of them being our servants they are our rulers! I think that they and their schemes are just pernicious Memes' that we have yet to deal with.

Keevin Shultz
Keevin Shultz6 years ago

Yes, it would be nice if all people legally had to follow the same laws. I would love to have a job where I can set my own pay rate, don't have to know what the job description is, workday schedule, number of hours I work each day, create my own taxpayer health insurance plan, create my own taxpayer funded pension plan, require other people to pay me extra for doing them a favor, and oh, yes, create laws and rules that don't apply to me but everyone else must follow or be jailed. And to top it all off, the general population sends money to me so I can publicly ask them to support me in my job (by voting for me). I think I could be forced to make a career out of that type of job! Who knows, after a few very profitable years, I could learn to like it. There is even another perk If I want it: this would be excellent job preparation for becoming president of the United States of America! Somewhere along the line I think we have become quite lost and in desperate need of improvement in our whole political process.