Okay, here goes: The overwhelming bulk of what the GOP candidates had to say last night was pure, unadulterated horses***.
Were I in a different humor, I might focus on how there was an interesting axis of Donald Trump, Cruz and Rand Paul advocating against greater military intervention in the Middle East but more draconian border and homeland security measures. But truthfully, that would be missing the forest for the trees. No, what was startling about the debate was just how so many candidates could say so many wrong things about American foreign policy in two hours.
Don’t take my word on this. Will McCants — a man who knows a thing or two about the Islamic State problem — was live-tweeting the debate. Many of those tweets were not pretty. Here’s a sampler:
Well, at least Trump demonstrated his deep foreign policy knowl — wait, what’s this Politico story by Nick Gass?
Donald Trump appeared to struggle with his explanation of the nuclear triad, instead going off into his own explanation of who can be trusted with such an arsenal. …Marco Rubio immediately followed up with an explanation of the triad, informing the American people that the term refers to the ability to deliver nuclear weapons by strategic bomber, intercontinental ballistic missile, or submarine.
For those unfamiliar with political correctness, “Trump appeared to struggle” is code for “Trump had no clue what the nuclear triad actually is.”
There was more. Chris Christie said he’d be ready, willing and able to shoot down a Russian fighter over Syria. (He also assured Americans that he’d get along great with Jordan’s King Hussein, who unfortunately has been dead for quite some time.) Carly Fiorina gave a nonsensical answer on how to change the status quo in North Korea. Rand Paul claimed that America’s greatest threat is the national debt. The entire discussion on regulating the Internet was pretty nonsensical. You get the idea.
By my count, only two candidates didn’t say anything flatly wrong about foreign policy the whole night: Jeb Bush and Rubio. The former fumbled too many of his lines to matter in the primary and the latter is barely treading water in the polls. Oh, and both of them were far more hawkish on the use of force in the Middle East than the other candidates, which is less than comforting.
What this debate revealed is that if you’re a Republican and you’re limiting yourself to viable candidates for the nomination, your choice is between a reasonably well-versed, super-aggressive hawk (Rubio), a smart but tendentious paradox (Cruz) and the Insulter-in-Chief (Trump).
What’s particularly frustrating is that the Obama administration has plenty of foreign policy warts to pick over. There can and should be a vibrant debate over how best to advance American interests in an uncertain world. But we’re dealing with a political environment in which the GOP front-runner knows nothing about U.S. nuclear capabilities. This is not the most fertile soil to inculcate a real debate.
When I came of political age, the Republican Party had a surfeit of smart, tough-minded foreign policy folk: Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, James Baker, Bob Zoellick, Richard Haass, and Lawrence Eagleburger. I pity these people having to listen to what was said on the GOP main stage last night.
Because when it comes to American foreign policy, what was said in Vegas should stay in Vegas.