The Outsiders

Alright. There may be something to this Gingrich thing.

The latest debate in the GOP presidential campaign took place in Washington, DC, the city the candidates love to hate and want to live in. And the current frontrunner in the polls demonstrated why he’s pretty crafty with this politics game. For Newt Gingrich, foreign policy might not be a pet subject. But in tonight’s CNN-hosted debate with everyone’s favorite combination of savage beast and football analogy as moderator, he pretty much held court.

(Wolf Blitzer. Savage beast/football analogy. Get it?)

I stand by my belief that when it comes to foreign policy, Santorum, Bachmann and Gingrich will always be head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd in terms of what they know and understand, and their sense of reality vs. idealism. But Gingrich toned down the condescension a little and that allowed some measuredness to shine through.

Yes, this is coming from the woman who ranted against his position on education just a short time ago. Oh, and by the way, he doesn’t have a qualm about child labor. Nine-year-olds should be able to work, he said this week. So I still think he’s a little nuts.

And lest someone tell me that I’m forgetting that Ron Paul is a member of Congress: I haven’t forgotten that. But he’s not a Republican; he’s a Libertarian and an isolationist, and because of that he will not get the GOP nomination. He makes people think and he brings up excellent points very often, and so he has a place on the stage. But he will not be running against President Obama in 2012 unless he’s a third-party candidate. Therefore, this is the extent of talk about him in this post, because last night’s debate was about foreign policy, and his responses to questions on the matter are so consistently isolationist that they don’t warrant further discussion in specificity vis-a-vis the Republican campaign. Leave everyone alone; stop wasting money on war. This is the Paul Doctrine. Agree or disagree, it’s fine. In some cases I think he’s right, but I’m not going to belabor his singular point repeatedly.

I will also exclude Rep. Michele Bachmann from this discussion, but for different reasons: she isn’t saying anything new, ever. She is not expounding on anything she’s said before. She says something general and then says President Obama is bad at everything from foreign policy to basic math, sometimes she throws out some substantial and impressive understandings of numbers and legislative process, but she never really goes anywhere with any of it. If there’s one person in this race whose presence serves no one and accomplishes nothing, I think it’s her right now. She’s lost her distinct voice.

If you’ve missed my other posts on the things she and Rep. Paul have said during this campaign, check out the Political Snark category of my blog. And forgive me; I don’t have time to do pictures and fun captions today. I’m trying to get out of Dodge, do a little border-crossing of my own.

There are hard lines for Newt Gingrich: treating terror suspects like enemy combatants (including renewing the Patriot Act in total without changes to anything) is one of them. But in this particular debate, that seemed to me to be the only true hard line he took. The rest of it was pretty nuanced. But there were two questions I found important that I don’t remember hearing Gingrich answer: one about racial profiling of terror suspects, and one about whether the US should continue to fund anti HIV/AIDS and malaria programs in Africa in light of economic struggles. I suspect I know his answer to the latter; I think he’d be in favor of continuing spending because his approach to foreign aid is a little less all-or-nothing than some other candidates (which I’ll explain later). But I really would have liked to know his answer to the racial/ethnic profiling question.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a breakdown of how the others answered that:

Rick Santorum absolutely believes in profiling. He says there is a specific group of people carrying out the majority of terror plots against the country, they are radical Islamists, and they should absolutely be targeted. He didn’t say how to avoid the lone wolf plots we’ve been told are the most likely threat from here on, and how many of those don’t fit the physical profile of a radical Muslim.

Jon Huntsman is against profiling.

Mitt Romney didn’t directly answer the question, punting instead to a point about making it easier to get through security at the airport, which I thought was a transparently limited response.

Herman Cain is for what he called “targeted identification.” For those of you paying any attention at all, that means he’s in favor of racial/ethnic profiling, but he’s not in favor of calling it racial/ethnic profiling.  I’m getting really tired of his ways of trying to sell a two-foot pool by calling it a six-foot pool. There’s no There there. He’s just dancing, like a boxer trying to avoid a technical knockout.

I don’t know anything about boxing, really, but I’m pretty sure that analogy is decent.

Here’s another example: he was asked, if Israel decided to attack Iran to prevent Iran from further developing nuclear weapons, whether he would help Israel launch its attack or support it in another way. His response was that he would first determine whether the Israelis had a credible plan for success, with clarity of purpose and mission.

Forgive me, but… no sh*t, Sherlock. The only time we don’t make sure there’s a credible plan for success and clarity of purpose and mission is for our own wars. You didn’t answer the question. Would you support Israel or not? Cain’s answer is always, “It depends.” Sometimes it doesn’t depend. The point isn’t whether Israel’s goal is clear; in a situation like that, Israel’s goal is pretty damned clear: avoid being blown off the face of the earth by a nation whose leader is avowedly committed to destroying Zionism.

I mean… duh.

Here’s a third example of chickensh*t answers from Cain: Mr. Cain, do you think the US should continue its spending on anti HIV/AIDS and malaria programs in Africa? “Well, it depends on how successful they’ve been. It might be worth it; it might not. I’d want to look at the results and then decide.”

Mr. Cain, would you like pepperoni on your pizza, or sausage? “Well, it depends. I’m not sure what mood I’ll be in. I might like pepperoni; I might not. I don’t know what I’ll have a taste for. I’d like to find that out first.” Come on. The Africa question is a no-brainer. YES. Spend the money. Africa is a huge continent filled with smaller, tribal and often fractious nations, and in modern times, disease travels the world in a day. From a humanitarian perspective, it’s the right thing to do. From a global pandemic perspective, it’s the right thing to do. From a world stability perspective, it’s the right thing to do. From a healthcare cost and pharmaceutical business perspective, it’s the right thing to do (if we’re talking capitalism). In no way is it not the right thing to do. Say yes, you unqualified disaster of a candidate. Maybe you want to spend a bit less on it in light of developments or advances in medical care indigenous to the area; fine. But don’t say “It depends.” It doesn’t.

Rick Santorum actually brilliantly summarized why you say “yes” to the effort in Africa: it was a continent on the brink, and its instability would have been a beacon for terrorists if there were no aid from stable countries. Stabilizing the area with the money spent on humanitarian aid was in the interest of national security. Santorum’s most ringing part of this argument: if you want to spend more on defense, cut the foreign aid, even aid regarded as humanitarian, to zero. You’ll spend a lot more on defense, because you will anger and imperil the world.

Cain did study for this debate. He pointed out that Iran is mountainous and those mountains may be hiding as many as 40 different nuclear sites (I don’t know where he got the number; he didn’t say). He also pointed out that if the US withdraws too quickly from Afghanistan, Iran is waiting to fill the vacuum. (This analogy may be more applicable in nations like Libya, but it’s still a fair point, in that it demonstrates that we’re better off fighting Iran’s potential power than taking a wait-and-see approach.) What he didn’t study was the name of the moderator. Called him “Blitz” instead of “Wolf,” during a pointed and indignant answer. But he corrected himself and apologized for the error. It was the funniest moment of the night. And by that I mean nothing else funny happened. But even if it had, calling Wolf Blitzer “Blitz” would have been the funniest moment of the night.

Cain’s other set of flashcards appeared to be on the issue of immigration reform (and by “immigration reform,” we mean keeping out the Mexicans, now that my people, the lazy, shiftless, thieving Irish, are off the hook). He cited a survey he didn’t name or source, that apparently says 40% of the Mexican citizens questioned believe their country is a failed state. And he said the number of people killed in Mexico last year (he didn’t specify motive) was equal to the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (he didn’t specify whether that was civilians, native military, American/allied military, or some combination thereof). Therefore, he wants to strengthen the border and enforce the laws the country already has against illegal immigration. “We don’t need new ones,” he said, and he might be right about that.

The illegal immigration discussion was surprisingly long in this debate, which featured no time limits for responses, a single moderator (the aforementioned Wolf… Or Blitz…whatever) and interpersonal conflict that, where it existed, was not the slightest bit manufactured by the moderator. This might be part of why Gingrich did so well and toned down the condescension. It left room for a broadening of perspective wherein Texas governor Rick Perry pointed out that Hamas and Hezbollah have been working in Mexico and that the Iranian government’s biggest embassy is in Venezuela. As far as Perry sees it, a discussion about illegal immigration is pointless if it doesn’t include a plan to shut down that border and keep it secure. He says he can do it in 12 months. It’s an impressive declaration from a Texas governor who hasn’t quite gotten it done yet in ten years, but I’ll allow for the fact that there are other states on that border that he can’t control.

But what about the best and brightest? Isn’t America losing potential when it ships off the immigrants who could really do something in the country? For Gingrich and Romney, the answer is yes; both men want a program that would give special visas to immigrants who are highly skilled or entrepreneurial, particularly if they are educated here.  For Gingrich, every immigrant who gets a graduate degree in math, science or engineering should be granted a visa that lets them stay… but he wouldn’t make them legal citizens.

Ditto, those who have been here for a long time and have become productive members of American society. This is where Gingrich differed most drastically from his fellow candidates and from the alleged Republican base. He doesn’t want to deport illegal immigrants who have been here for 25 years (that was his referenced number), who have done nothing wrong in that time except come into the country illegally, and who have families here. I think one of his most powerful and stand-alone moments was when he said, “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the Party For the Family is going to adopt an immigration policy that destroys families that have been here for 25 years. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, ‘Let’s create a policy that doesn’t legalize them, but doesn’t divide the families.'”

The weak point of Gingrich’s argument is that he draws a line between recent illegal immigrants and those who have been here a while. It’s hard to figure out where that line is, or who defines what a family is (Elian Gonzales, anyone?) And as the other candidates argued, anything perceived as amnesty is a magnet that is going to bring people in the back door instead of encouraging them to go the legal route. Gingrich doesn’t believe his suggestion amounts to amnesty. The others aren’t sure.

The debate over Iran may have been just as diverse as that of Mexico and the border. Rick Perry is standing by his insistence that the US find a way to shut down the Iranian Central Bank. I wish he would explain how the US could have any right or ability to do that, and what it really would mean, and how he developed this argument. I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m just saying nobody knows what he’s talking about when he says that. He also wants the option of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, an Iranian ally, so that Iran gets the message that the US is serious about shutting down Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The original question was actually about whether any sanctions could stop Iran, in light of the fact that the US hasn’t bought oil (which helps fund their nuclear program) directly from that nation in more than 30 years, and targeted sanctions have been in place for more than half that time. In other words; it’s not necessarily our money that’s helping them, so why would sanctions work against them? New Gingrich believes that on the world market, the oil produced in Iran could be replaced if the US opened up more of its own oil fields. The cost of oil, he says, would collapse in short order. But a CNN fact check after the debate demonstrated that Iran manufactures about half the oil that the US does in a year, so the US would have to increase oil production by 50% to replace Iranian oil on the world market (and there was no discussion about whether the prices would be different given who’s selling it).

But Gingrich’s larger point in Iran was this: what’s needed is a strategy to defeat and replace the regime using minimal force; a strategy to contain radical Islam; and a plan to beat Iran without going to war and without them getting nukes, rather than a struggle to take them down once one or both of those things have happened. He would not bomb Iran unless it was a last resort and it was guaranteed to take out the regime, because anything short of doing that would only create a more dangerous climate.

Mitt Romney thinks sanctions are the way to go: harsh ones (they’re already pretty tough). He added that Ahmadinejad should be targeted for violating what he called the “genocide convention.” He was struggling here, so I’m not sure that convention actually happened, but we took his point. And he noted that the sanctions he wants would raise gas prices, but would be worth it. I think that’s the take-away from Romney here, since the rest of his answer wasn’t very strong.

But here’s where he gained strength: he told Rick Perry that a no-fly zone over Syria would be pointless. Why? Syria has 5,000 tanks on the ground. They’re not bombing their own people. A no-fly wouldn’t matter. What’s needed to deal with Syria (and remove the force of its support for Iran) is sanctions and covert operations, support for the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad regime, insurance of a future for the country after Assad, and increased pressure on the regime, like what’s already coming out of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

This was probably Romney’s best moment in what was otherwise a fairly flat debate for him.

But this is also where Jon Huntsman shined. He waited patiently for his turn and then made a solid, immutable point: sanctions against Iran will not work, because the Chinese and the Russians aren’t going to play along, and they’re the ones strengthening Iran. North Korea has a nuclear weapon; nobody touches them. Libya gave theirs up in exchange for friendship with the world; look where that got them. The national interest is not well-served by jumping into alliances we don’t fully understand.

Well, crap. Forget everything everybody else said.

And yes, they did talk about the failure of the supercommittee and what that means for defense. Or what it allegedly means (see my previous post). Romney seems squarely in the camp of the DoD, believing the triggered cuts will damage defense. He cited programs for war vehicles and materiel that would be cut. See the letter from Sen. Tom Coburn that I linked to in my previous post… or here if you don’t want to invest the time in reading the other thing… to find out why he’s pandering when he says this.

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich made yet another nuanced stand. “I helped found the Military Reform Caucus in 1981 because it’s clear there are things you can do that are less expensive” than the current projected budget. He says if it takes 15 years to build weapons while Apple changes its entire scheme in nine months, something’s wrong. “We defeated Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan in three years and eight months, because we thought we were serious.” He pitched to opening up federal lands to create revenue and jobs, and saving $500 billion by increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal government. In other words, the price of defense is indeed very likely too high, and it wouldn’t hurt to cut it if we step outside the lines of current thinking.

Here’s another way Gingrich is okay with coloring outside the lines: Social Security. It appears he’s done some research into Cain’s suggestion that the US model its plan after Chile. In a nutshell, you’re encouraged to save. If you don’t have as much savings as the federal government would have given you in Social Security in that time, then the government gives you the difference. According to him, Chile didn’t spend a dime on the plan, because everybody saved as much as, or more than, Social Security would have provided. This would obviously only work for those who begin paying into the system now, and it would require a total change in thinking for the whole country about the program. But it’s outside the lines. And for an old guy who can’t stop talking about the 80s, it’s a surprisingly modern approach.

To close, Donner Blitzen asked the candidates to quickly state what national security threat is not getting enough attention. Santorum said militant socialists and radical Islamists banding together in Central and South America. Romney agreed. Perry and Huntsman said China, which gives Perry a note of credibility since Huntsman was most recently the ambassador to China. Cain said he was a ballistics analyst and a computer scientist in years past (what the hell?) and nobody’s talking enough about cyberattacks.

In case you’re wondering, Bachmann agreed with everybody and Ron Paul said he’s most worried about the US’s own overreaction. Surprise.

In yet another substantive debate, I think Gingrich justified his spot at the top of the polls. Nobody hurt themselves. Santorum might have bought himself a little help in a campaign that’s got single digits. I think Romney had a weak night. And the band plays on. Many more debates to come. If they’re like this one, we’ll be well-served.

Read the full transcript here.

 

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