On Afghanistan, most of the candidates said Obama made a big mistake in setting a date for withdrawal. Romney sort of agreed, but also said that Obama’s 2014 pullout date seemed “the right timetable.” Huntsman said the troops should come home now (except for some special ops, trainers, and tactical intelligence) and give up on nation-building, except at home.
Cain was remarkably honest about how little he knows, about anything. Is Pakistan a friend or foe? “We don’t know.” Would you send American ground forces to clear out the sanctuaries in Pakistan? “That is a discussion that I would make after consulting with commanders on the ground” (and with the Afghans and Pakistanis too). How would you know when to overrule your military commanders? I’m afraid I dropped my pen in astonishment, so didn’t get an exact quote, but Cain said that he would surround himself with “the right people … multiple groups of people offering different ideas,” then choose the ideas that “make sense.” (So that’s how it’s done.)
There are a few things Cain was certain about. Obama made a bad decision in backing the Arab Spring, which is “getting totally out of hand” because a “majority” of those people are Muslim Brotherhood. He also wants to keep Gitmo going full-time and forget about trying detainees in civilian courts “because they’re terrorists.”
A few more amusements:
Perry’s proof that he has experience in this realm: “For 10 years, I’ve been commander-in-chief of 20,000 National Guard in Texas. … I’m dealing with generals, I know individuals in the Department of Defense at the highest level who will help me.” This is half-nonsense, half-puzzling. The nonsense: As was made very clear when Sarah Palin made a similar argument, governors have no control whatsoever over the National Guard units in their states, except to deploy them for local disaster-relief, that sort of thing. The puzzle: Who are these generals and high-level DoD people who will help Perry if he’s president? The same ones who are currently helping Obama?
Perry said he would reduce all foreign aid to zero, then have advocates for each individual country come in and make a case for getting “one penny” of taxpayer money, much less billions of dollars. (His staff back-pedaled on this after the debate, noting that an exception would be made, of course, for Israel.)
Romney, asked about the prospect of a trade war with China, said, “A trade war is already going on” and promised to take China to the World Trade Organization on charges of currency manipulation. Huntsman, who was Obama’s ambassador to China, retorted, “The reality is different, as it usually is when you’re on the ground.” First, he noted, China can’t be taken to the WTO on currency charges. Second, a trade war would hurt the United States quite badly. Third, we should reach out to China’s rising young computer generation. Again, he seemed reasonable. (No wonder he doesn’t have a chance, and, after his diss of Romney, his prospects for becoming secretary of state, on the chance of a GOP victory in 2012, don’t look too good, either.)
Finally, the dumbest remark of the night … well, the second-dumbest, after Bachmann’s head-turner on China’s admirable free-market economy: Gingrich, saying that every candidate up on the stage would be “superior to the current administration.” If he’s serious, he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Or maybe he was assuming that if one of the other Republicans wins, he (or, really God help us, she) would surely hire Newt Gingrich to run the nation’s foreign policy.
Speaking of seriousness: CBS News, which co-sponsored this debate with the National Journal, aired the first hour of the 90-minute session on its national broadcast, but let local affiliates decide whether they wanted to air the remaining half hour or resume normal programming. (In New York, WCBS went for NCIS, as I suspect most others did. The climax could be watched on the network’s website, which had buffering problems.) The network’s producers, I suspect, made the right move. They know how important national-security issues are likely to be in this election—not very—and they seem to have guessed well how seriously the candidates in this debate should be taken in any case—even less.