Last night’s Republican debates took five hours to reconfirm most of what we already knew about the candidates. Trump demonstrated how much of a substance-free blowhard he could be, Bush secured his reputation as a wonkish nebbish, Fiorina proved that she could recite a laundry list of questionable hawkish ideas, and Paul showed a few times during the debate what it would be like to have a candidate who offered coherent dissents from party orthodoxy on foreign policy. Overall, most of the candidates showed that they were not well-prepared on foreign policy issues, and while they may have talked a lot about them they ended up saying very little.
Paul gave one of the better performances of the night once he was able to break into the conversation. He challenged Fiorina on her absurd pledge to stop talking to Moscow, which he correctly pointed out wasn’t even done at the height of the Cold War, and he presented a solid defense of the merits of diplomatic engagement generally. The only problem with this was that his support for engagement was directly at odds with his opposition to the results of that engagement in the case of Iran. Paul gave other good answers criticizing the dangers of military intervention, dinging the Saudis for their destabilizing role in Syria, arguing for marijuana legalization, and attacking some of the injustices of drug prohibition. It was a significant improvement for him over the first debate, but it may not help his campaign as much as he needed it to.
Trump and Carson were still at sea on foreign policy issues, but neither of them was pressed on this enough to make it a real problem for them. Trump was asked about the “red line” in Syria and gave this telling response:
Had he crossed the line and really gone in with force, done something to Assad – if he had gone in with tremendous force, you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world.
This is insane. Had the U.S. gone in with “tremendous force” in 2013, the Syrian government might very well have crumbled and collapsed, ISIS or other jihadists would rule an even larger section of Syria, and the refugee crisis would be exponentially worse than it is today. Only ideologues and buffoons think that a refugee crisis caused by war could have been remedied by escalating and intensifying that war, but that is the position that many Republican candidates take.
Carson referred to jihadists as an “existential threat to our nation,” which is plainly false and amounts to the most irresponsible alarmism. Huckabee indulged in much the same when he addressed the nuclear deal by absurdly saying, “This is really about the survival of Western civilization.” Shortly after that, he asserted that Iran threatens “the essence of Western civilization.” If Carson’s statement was ignorant, Huckabee’s were simply deranged. None of them could be trusted to judge foreign threats accurately.
The other candidates’ rhetoric about Iran in both debates was also ludicrous, but not surprising. Christie affirmed that he would never agree to anything with Iran’s government, which implies that the only way he would try to settle disputes with Iran is through force, Rubio raved about their “apocalyptic” regime, and earlier Santorum went a bit further by warning about the “apocalyptic death cult” to which most of the Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq supposedly belonged. The mixture of painful ignorance about Iranian culture and the absolute certainty about Iranian intentions was as bad as usual. Cruz recited a litany of falsehoods about the nuclear deal that echoed the standard talking points from Iran hawks: he asserted that Iran will be able to “inspect themselves” (they won’t), he repeated his scurrilous claim that the deal will make the U.S. the “world’s leading financier” of terrorism, he misrepresented how the inspections regime works, and he misled the audience to believe that the confidentiality of the IAEA’s agreements with Iran represents a violation of U.S. law.
In the first debate, Graham kept raising the alarm about ISIS coming to the U.S. to attack us, which is how he tried to justify his eagerness to send American soldiers into combat in Iraq and Syria. ISIS doesn’t have the ability to attack the U.S., and never has, but none of Graham’s competitors was going to say this and none of the moderators objected to this unfounded fear-mongering from Graham. All of the candidates from the first debate were on board with launching an illegal war against Iran. Because they were at the Reagan library, the candidates often fell back on Reaganolatry to make some of their points. Graham must have thought he was very clever when he asked rhetorically, “Do you think Putin would be in Ukraine or Syria if Reagan were president.” To which I replied:
Graham: “Do you think Putin would be in Ukraine or Syria if Reagan were president?” When Reagan was president, the Soviets were in both
— Daniel Larison (@DanielLarison) September 16, 2015
U.S. presidents throughout the Cold War were frequently unable to prevent or “roll back” Moscow’s actions, and they understood that attempting to do so would be extremely risky. Since the end of the Cold War, most of our political leaders have forgotten that the U.S. is not able to compel other states to behave as we would like, and they prefer not to acknowledge that other states have their own objectives that don’t depend on what the U.S. is or isn’t doing. Graham was trying to score a partisan point by contrasting Obama and Reagan, but he was also displaying the arrogance that afflicts enthusiasts of U.S. hegemony.
Though he is clueless on policy substance, Trump labors under a similar delusion. He proved this when he asserted that Russian actions were the result of a lack of “respect” for Obama, and that once a U.S. president is “respected” all these problems would be sorted out. Trump’s “respect” rhetoric functions in exactly the same way as the foreign policy pundit’s invocation of “resolve”: it is the intangible thing that the U.S. always needs to have more of and which will fix any given crisis. It is a substitute for a coherent policy alternative, because the person insisting on “respect” or “resolve” usually doesn’t have one or doesn’t want to describe it for fear of horrifying the audience.
The terrible state of Republican foreign policy was on full display last night, and I imagine the Democratic candidates cannot believe their party’s luck that their opponents are happily embracing such hard-line and dangerous policies.