Beyond the Sea

People, I know this is my second political debate post in four days. That’s because it was the second GOP presidential debate in four days. I will get back to my non-political, non-stomach turning (depending on your taste) wit and Everywoman humor soon, I promise, but for now… it’s another installation of Thesinglecell’s Guide To Not (Further) Screwing Up the Country: Foreign Policy Edition.

As if I have any authority to publish a Guide for that.

This debate, televised (at least 2/3 of it) by CBS News, was all about the actions of a Commander-In-Chief. The focus: foreign policy. The mood: gentle and respectful, if not entirely agreeable – keeping with the Ghost of Reagan’s apparently renewed admonishment about speaking ill of fellow Republicans. But if you watched, you saw what might have been the most telling and educational debate thus far.

When you have three people who are or were in Congress (Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum), you have three people who automatically know far, far more about foreign policy than non-politicians and current or former governors. The wild card here was Jon Huntsman, ambassador three times over and American-Abroad once more than that. Still, when it came down to knowing what they were talking about, the candidates of Capitol Hill held the night.

The current top tier

Herman Cain is polling highest despite a very ugly week, so he got the first question: What would you do to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power? I thought his “first thing” was interesting: to assist the opposition in Iran (meaning the Iranian people) to overthrow the Ahmadinejad regime. It’s not necessarily wrong – I can see a sense to it, though what do I know? – and he didn’t say why he’d do it first, so our reasons may not match. (Mine is that it might be less messy to encourage a “democratic” overthrow of a despised leader than for the US to just take him out and suffer the wrath of a faction of extremists.) The second thing he said he’d do is develop the US’s own energy strategy. Iran uses oil as a weapon, he says.

There was a third thing, but, like Gov. Rick Perry last time, I’ve forgotten it.

It wasn’t a bad answer, just a superficial one. After watching all these debates and reading a lot about this campaign, I have not once been swayed from my feeling that Herman Cain never thought he’d get this far. Americans love a good civil uprising, so he can’t go wrong supporting a people’s revolution. But apart from ruling out military action, he didn’t say how he would do it or whether it would be any more, or different, from the current administration. He also didn’t say how he would develop energy independence. Granted, most candidates don’t dole out specifics, but I really don’t think Herman Cain has any idea how to do anything when it comes to global leadership.

Still, after all that analysis, perhaps the most ballsy declaration of the campaign thus far came from Mitt Romney a moment later: “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If the country elects me, we won’t.”

Whoa. That is a call-out. A big one. I don’t know where he’s going to go with it, but that is the first bona fide scare tactic of the campaign, and I have a feeling it’s going to show up again.

Newt Gingrich (with whom we know I have a love-hate relationship, if we’re playing the home version of our game) got specific: maximize covert operations. Use a strategy closely akin to Reagan’s policy with the USSR to break the regime. Take out scientists and break up systems, all in secret, “all totally deniable.” Well… maybe a little less deniable now that he’s said this is what he’d do if he were president. Damned YouTube. Damned worldwide web.

By the way, Rick Perry’s approach was economical: shut down the Iranian Central Bank with sanctions so tough that they force Iran’s hand. Though there was lots of talk of further sanctions on Iran, Perry was the only one who said this.

"Yeah! Nukes! Woot!"

The thing about Iran that most people on the stage understood is that everything in the Middle East and Arab world is tied together. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Israel is staring into the face of an epic nightmare in a Members Only jacket. And Israel probably won’t flinch. Syria, India and Pakistan are all but locked and loaded with everything pointing toward the Holy Land. Iran with a nuke is a firestarter, and it’s hard to put out a nuclear warhead. The only guy out in the cold on this is, not surprisingly, Ron Paul, who can just be summed up as an isolationist and we can move on from discussing any of his foreign policy dogma any further in this post.

But when it comes to Pakistan, the newly convivial GOP candidates don’t reach consensus. Herman Cain says we don’t know if Pakistan is our friend or not; they’re not clear. (He’s big on clarity.)  He would demand that his Security Council find out what commitments the nation is willing to make in order to keep us on its Friends List.  He talked about a recent interview in which Afghan president Hamid Karzai told Pakistan that, if the US goes cold on Pakistan, the Afghans would support Pakistan instead of the US. He said we need a regional strategy in the Middle East so that the outcomes will be beneficial for all the allies.

I’ve finally boiled down my problem with Herman Cain: I could be him. I could say all the stuff he’s saying (except the stuff about sexual harassment of women, as I prefer to harass men).  And  you don’t want me being president of a book club, let alone the country. Other oversimplified answers to complex situations:

-Q: How do you know when to overrule generals?
Cain: make sure you surround yourself with the right people. I can assess the call when I     have the cabinet and joint chiefs together. You know if you need to overrule when you         consider all facts and ask for alternatives. The Commander-in-Chief makes judgment call     based on facts.

-Q (from National Journal’s website): C0nsidering what is happening in the Arab Spring, how can you make it work for us and not against us?
Cain: You have to look at Libya, Egypt, Yemen and all the revolutions going on and see how administration has mishandled them. They have gotten totally out of hand.

(Not only is this overly broad; I’m not even sure what it means. The American administration has mishanded someone else’s revolution? All three of those revolutions were eventually successful, and the US managed its support on a multilateral level with no casualties to American soldiers. And what’s out of hand, exactly? The rebellions themselves? They were violent. They were brutal. I’m not dismissing the horrors by any means, but that’s what rebellions are like, and if the US had gotten any more involved it would have been fingerprinted with blood rather than ink. The only thing I can think of is the very real question of who will be in charge now in each of those places. Fair question, I’ll grant, but if that’s the point, make the point.)

And I don’t think Cain is saying the simple stuff to preserve the almighty soundbite. I think it’s because he lacks depth as a candidate. If you ever want to apply a test to the depth of Cain’s responses, try this: if he’s talking like you’re an idiot for not having already known the answer to the question, like this is all incredibly obvious… he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If the folks who back him don’t see that soon, the Party is going to upset them next summer when it nominates someone else no matter what the polls say. And if the Party does pick Cain, well… that’s going to be a landslide victory for President Obama.

Too general about the generals

Let’s move on to questions about Afghanistan. Here, I fault Gov. Rick Perry for the same problem as Mr. Cain: generalities that prove he doesn’t have the depth he needs to discuss the topic. Example: “the mission must be completed… the timetable (for withdrawal) is irresponsible… we’re discussing the combat on the ground with commanders in the field and making progress, but we have to train Afghan security forces so that they can protect their own country. ” That was almost the entirety of his answer to whether the American effort on the ground was working.

He didn’t say a thing there that we haven’t been hearing for at least five years.

Bachmann knows her numbers

And then the Capitol Gang weighed in and took the rest of the kids’ lunch money. Had to see it coming, really: what governor or ex-governor or pizza CEO is going to have a grasp on this stuff? Foreign policy, believe it or not, is where Rep. Michele Bachmann shines. She’s on the House Intelligence Committee and it shows: she gives out numbers and explains why she thinks a 40,000-troop surge would have been better than the 30,000 the US sent to Afghanistan (it would have allowed the US to go into both the south and the east at the same time, instead of focusing on the south). Her attempted populism and her struggle to regain ground come through eventually, but she’s at her most confident when she’s talking solid facts, and she understands those facts and their implications, not just in Afghanistan, but in the Middle East and North Africa.

Rick Santorum has a good deal of foreign policy experience from his time in the Senate.  His biggest points last night may not have played well to the base, but he was right about them: Pakistan has to be a friend to the US, by which he means, Psst… be nice to Pakistan. They have nukes. If we piss them off, they start a fight. Gov. Perry wants to start his administration with zero dollars going to any foreign country until they make their case that they deserve it. That’s a cute parental allowance approach, but Santorum pointed out the flaw right away: If Pakistan starts getting money from someone else, the other benefactor gains the upper hand over the US, and that creates, by default, a more dangerous situation for the US. Santorum’s prescription: Get through the quagmire with Pakistan the same way we had to get through it with Saudi Arabia after 9/11.

That’s a slam dunk answer, not because it’s populist, but because it’s realistic. And it’s the same one Bachmann had.

In debates, we often look for the applause lines, the lines that get the audience to cheer. But in this debate, there was one particular statement that froze everyone solid and silent for a second, which, in politics and live television, is an eternity. It was the sound of Newt Gingrich answering a question from CBS’s Scott Pelley: “Mr. Speaker, how do you make peace in Pakistan without negotiating with the Taliban?”

The answer?

(Beat.) “I don’t think you do.”

It was a stunning, and amazingly frank, response that I give the former speaker credit for. Which might only be because I agree with him. That’s typically the circumstance under which I give people credit for things.

Even Scott Pelley was taken aback when Gingrich said it, and so had to take about half a second to recover before beginning to clarify with a second question, which Gingrich interrupted. “I think this is so much bigger and deeper a problem than we’ve talked about as a country that we– we don’t have a clue how hard this is gonna be.” He meant “we” as a country, not just the folks on the stage. He meant “we” as in the Pentagon and the administration and Congress and US allies. He went on to explain that the Taliban and other terrorists have sanctuary in Pakistan. It’s a safe haven. And until the US figures out a way to end that (presumably while understanding the points Santorum and Bachmann made about friendship), it’s never going to stop.

Hear him out on Pakistan

Holy crap. He’s, um… he’s probably not wrong. Pakistan really kind of sucks. And we kind of have to be nice to them.

Two candidates tried to at least see the bets laid by the Capitol Gang on foreign policy: Gov. Rick Perry, who talked about his experience commanding 20,000 National Guard members in Texas on the border with Mexico (a point I read as desperate), and Jon Huntsman, whose experience overseas in political and business capacities earn him more stars than the governors (his experiences are valid and he couches them in the context of worldy reality vs. ignorant idealism, but none of his answers were significant enough politically to earn him major points). He did get a China trade question in this debate: see his answer to same in the last debate.

One other thing I’d like to mention: the candidates’ position on torture.

  • Cain – against torture, considers waterboarding to be enhanced interrogation
  • Paul – waterboarding is torture; torture is illegal in American and international law, not to mention immoral and impractical… and un-American.
  • Huntsman – this country has values and a name brand in the world. “We dimish our standing and our values of liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture. Waterboarding is torture.”
  • Bachmann – willing to use waterboarding, says the president is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA.

This gets me off on a bit of a tangent: Herman Cain wants to keep Gitmo open and allow the use of all enhanced interrogation (ended by Pres. Obama in an executive order). Santorum and Perry agree, though Perry made a point to say he’s against torture. Okay, I gotta jump in, here… what exactly is the problem with the Obama administration’s way of handling terrorists? Osama bin Laden: dead. Ayman Al-Zawahiri: dead. Anwar Al-Awlaki: dead. I’m sorry, is something not working?

It was good to see a debate focusing entirely on foreign policy. It was good to see those who lack depth exposed. You might have noticed I didn’t mention Mitt Romney much; he handled himself perfectly fine in this debate, and I didn’t end up feeling uncomfortable with the idea of him at the helm of a global superpower, but he didn’t shine. If you afford me nothing else, afford me this: nobody wants to elect a president who doesn’t know what he or she is doing in the world. If you can prove me wrong on that, then you can prove to me why Herman Cain should still be on top in the next round of polls.

Read the full transcript here (remember to click through to Part 2 – this debate was segmented for broadcast)

Now On My Bookshelf: Hiroshima In the Morning – Rahna Reiko Rizzuto



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