The Republican field is not heavy on foreign policy expertise. The only candidate with significant international experience, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, is a not a serious competitor. Given President Bush’s failed and unpopular foreign policy and President Obama’s comparative success—killing Osama bin Laden and withdrawing from Iraq, two things Bush couldn’t or wouldn’t do—Republicans don’t like to talk about foreign policy very much.
But on Tuesday night CNN co-hosted a national security debate with the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. There were a few gaffes and troubling statements, but also a few surprising moments of sanity and intellectual honesty. The highlights are below.
Most insightful point: Texas Governor Rick Perry has promised to start funding for foreign aid for all countries at zero and only build it back up for those who demonstrate their loyalty to us. Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) articulated how this policy is unwise and inhumane, and ultimately how it is also not fiscally conservative.
“I hear people up here talking abut zeroing out foreign aid and humanitarian aid in particular. I think that’s absolutely the wrong course. You want to—you want to spend more money on the military, zero out all the things we do to develop relationships around the world and we will spend a lot more money on the military.”
Most absurdly irrelevant answer: Rick Perry’s answer to a question about whether the Transportation Security Administration’s policy of conducting pat downs of people flying is a violation of civil liberties or necessary to protect national security. Perry ignored the actual question and, upon hearing the abbreviation “TSA” his memorized TSA talking point was triggered. He immediately trotted out a favored conservative hobbyhorse: privatization. “Governor Perry, you proposed legislation that would criminalize these TSA pat-downs under certain circumstances,” said moderator Wolf Blitzer. “Explain what you have in mind.”
“Well, here’s what I would do with the TSA,” Perry replied. “I would privatize it as soon as I could and get rid of those unions.”
Moment when it became most apparent that Herman Cain has no idea what he’s talking about: here’s part of Cain’s answer on whether racial profiling in airport security is appropriate:
“I want to make sure that I get to the Patriot Act. So I believe we can do a whole better. The answer, I believe, also may be privatization. Now, relative to the Patriot Act, if there are some areas of the Patriot Act that we need to refine, I’m all for that. But I do not believe we ought to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
Moment when it became most apparent that Herman Cain has no idea what he’s talking about, part two: Sorry, it’s a tie. Herman Cain has developed the habit of masking his lack of foreign policy knowledge or ideas by saying that he will take a business-like approach to foreign policy decisions: assess all the information, go forward on a mission if the cost-benefit ratio makes sense. The only problem? When someone proposes a terrible, dangerous idea, and you don’t identify it as such but just stick to your businessman shtick, it doesn’t answer the question at all. Case in point: Cain was asked if he would support an Israeli attack on Iran. Here’s his answer:
“I would first make sure that they had a credible plan for success, clarity of mission and clarity of success…. And if Israel had a credible plan that it appeared as if they could succeed, I would support Israel, yes. And in some instances, depending upon how strong the plan is, we would join with Israel for that, if it was clear what the mission was and it was clear what the definition of victory was.”
Most surprisingly sane utterance: Also responding to Perry’s proposal to eliminate foreign aid, specifically in this case with regard to Pakistan, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said, “The United States has to be engaged. It is complicated…. And I also think that Pakistan is a nation, that it’s kind of like too nuclear to fail. And so we’ve got to make sure that we take that threat very seriously.”
Biggest whopper, in dollar terms: Mitt Romney complained about planned cuts to the defense budget with math that was one part phony and three parts lacking in relevant context. Romney exaggerated the cuts to defense by saying they are worth a trillion dollars, (the supercommittee portion of those cuts come from all security spending, not just defense). He ignored the fact that Congressional Republicans agreed to those cuts, as well as the fact that defense spending will still rise and we are just slowing its projected growth. Finally he claims that the Affordable Care Act will cost $1 trillion when, in fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it would reduce rather than increase the deficit. He denigrates spending money on providing health insurance for Americans who lack it as “foolish” relative to buying weapons. Also, Romney doesn’t even make an effort to demonstrate that cutting a few aircraft carriers means any other country will threaten our military superiority. Since we vastly outspend any potential adversary, that’s a tough case to make.
“They’re cutting a trillion dollars out of the defense budget, which just happens to equal the trillion dollars we’re putting into ‘Obamacare.’ And so what you have is a president that has a priority of spending us into bankruptcy, but he’s not just spending us into bankruptcy, he’s spending the money foolishly. We need to protect America and protect our troops and our military and stop the idea of ‘Obamacare.’ That’s the best way to save money, not the military.”
Most inspiring moment: Say what you want about Representative Ron Paul (R-TX)—that his ideas that are batty (returning to the gold standard) or cruel (letting the uninsured die)—but he calls it as he sees it. And when he’s right, he’s right. His statement about the “war on drugs” was honest, clear, moral and pragmatic. It’s worth quoting in full:
“I think the federal war on drugs is a total failure. You can—you can at least let sick people have marijuana because it’s helpful, but compassionate conservatives say, well, we can’t do this; we’re going to put people who are sick and dying with cancer and they’re being helped with marijuana, if they have multiple sclerosis—the federal government’s going in there and overriding state laws and putting people like that in prison. Why don’t we handle the drugs like we handle alcohol? Alcohol is a deadly drug. What about—the real deadly drugs are the prescription drugs. They kill a lot more people than the illegal drugs. So the drug war is out of control. I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties. It magnifies our problems on the borders. We spend—like, over the last forty years, $1 trillion on this war. And believe me, the kids can still get the drugs. It just hasn’t worked.”
Most unserious proposal: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says that “If we were serious, we would open up enough oil fields in the next year that the price of oil worldwide would collapse.” The United States has only 1.5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, so Gingrich’s scheme is literally impossible. But give him credit for understanding that oil is a global market and any increase in US drilling will affect price only insofar as it changes the balance between global supply and global demand. No other Republican seems capable of comprehending that essential fact.
“We defeated Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Imperial Japan in three years and eight months because we thought we were serious. If we were serious, we would open up enough oil fields in the next year that the price of oil worldwide would collapse. Now, that’s what we would do if we were a serious country.”
Most surprising moment of bravery: Gingrich doesn’t think we should break up law-abiding families that have been here for decades by deporting them. If you don’t think this qualifies as a dramatic statement, you haven’t been following the Republican primary. The watershed moment in Perry’s downfall was at a previous debate when he defended signing a bill in Texas that let undocumented immigrants brought there as children qualify for in-state tuition at public universities, which angered conservatives. Here’s what Gingrich said:
“If you’ve been here twenty-five years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”
Most anachronistic fear-mongering: The final question, put to all the candidates, was “What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about, either here or in any of the debates so far?” Santorum’s answer was odd. It’s impossible to explain except by imagining that maybe he just read an article in Commentary by Jeanne Kirkpatrick from 1980 and he thought it came out in the most recent issue:
“Well, I’ve spent a lot of time and concern—and Rick [Perry] mentioned this earlier—about what’s going on in Central and South America. I’m very concerned about the militant socialists and there—and the radical Islamists joining together, bonding together. I’m concerned about the spread of socialism and that this administration, with—time after time, whether it was the delay in moving forward on Colombia’s free trade agreement, whether it was turning our back to the Hondurans and standing up for democracy and the—and the rule of law. And we took the side with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro for a corrupt president. We’ve sent all the wrong signals to Central and South America.”
It’s a relief to know that if a new Islamist Red Menace arises in a small, poor country, President Santorum will meddle in their affairs to prevent it. Ronald Reagan would be pleased.