The Date-Night Debate
If you like watching something scary, you would have liked Saturday's Republican presidential debate about foreign policy.
Michele Bachmann braves the media after Saturday night's debate.
Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
My favorite remark in Saturday night’s “commander in chief” debate, in which the Republican presidential candidates answered questions about national security in one-minute sound bites, came from Michele Bachmann. "If you look at China, they don't have food stamps," she said. "They don't have the modern welfare state, and China's growing," she exclaimed, adding: "And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with the Great Society and they'd be gone."
The rest of the debate wasn’t quite that eye-popping. It could even be said that Jon Huntsman came off as pretty intelligent (I assume he’s still in the race in hopes of becoming the next secretary of state), Ron Paul was principled at least (in an isolationist sort of way), and—the night’s biggest surprise—Rick Santorum made one (though just one) reasonable comment (that we have to seek good relations with Pakistan because it has nukes).
Otherwise, God help us if any of these jokers makes it into the White House.
It started off with Iran. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Santorum all said that, if sanctions and covert ops failed, they would stop the Iranian nuclear program through military action. (Paul said he wouldn’t; Bachman and Huntsman didn’t get the question.)
As for the other hot-button issue, whether we should resume torturing suspected terrorists, Cain pulled out this gem: “I do not agree with torture, period. However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders [as to] what is torture.”
Moderator: Is waterboarding torture or an “enhanced interrogation technique”?
Cain: I agree that it is an "enhanced interrogation technique.”
Moderator: So you support it?
Perry said he too would defend such “techniques” to his death, adding, “This is war. This is what happens in war.” (John McCain, call Rick Perry.)
Bachmann leapt in to say she’s fine with waterboarding, too, and complained that, under President Obama, “the ACLU is running the CIA.” (Quick, somebody, tell David Petraeus!) She also made the astonishing claim that when our troops capture terrorists on the battlefield, there are no jails to lock them up in. (Somebody, tell the Army to set up detention centers!)
Only Paul and Huntsman spoke up for the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual on interrogation. Huntsman noted with a grave expression: “This country has values. I’ve lived overseas four times.… We diminish our standing in the world when we engage in torture. Waterboarding is torture.”
Gingrich wasn’t asked the torture question, but he did say that the nation needs to throw out all the CIA reforms that the Church Committee passed in the 1970s.
Romney wasn’t asked the question (too bad), but, on a related matter, he said that he would never negotiate with the Taliban because he doesn’t believe in negotiating with terrorists. Someone should ask him, next time out, how he plans to win, end hostilities, reach a settlement, or do something besides keep fighting forever in Afghanistan.
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.