Let’s Have a Real Foreign-Policy Debate
Only a few of the candidates can handle a real discussion.


Elise Jordan

Saturday’s Republican foreign-policy debate yielded only one revelation, neither comforting nor productive: When it comes to international affairs, most of the contenders offer plenty of political theater and little substance.

First there are the “know nothing” candidates, who struggle to produce a one-minute debate answer. They fear straying from conventional Republican foreign-policy talking points because they know nothing about foreign policy and merely aspire to keep afloat in the debate.

Rick Perry and Herman Cain duked it out to see who is captain of the Know Nothing team. Who was more unimpressive? It was a close call. Perry couldn’t spit out a modicum of thought to suggest he had any idea about the state of play in Afghanistan. We’re “makin’ progress,” he says, but he couldn’t nail down what ground dynamics informed his opinion.

Cain delivered vague and rambling answers at a frustratingly slow pace, and the rare substance he included was troubling. For Cain, forget the idea of challenging military orthodoxy — the kind of leadership, I might add, that Pres. George W. Bush executed in the dark days of the Iraq War. It’s “up to the commander in chief” to make decisions, Cain says, but not when it comes to torture. “I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture,” Cain says. Our military leaders have actually made that judgment: Waterboarding is torture, they believe, and they require soldiers to follow the Army Field Manual prohibiting it. (Cain probably meant to say “intelligence community.”) Why is Cain running for president if he wants to delegate when it comes to tough decisions?

Then there’s the camp of selective interpretation — candidates like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich, who are more experienced and better informed and yet misinterpret or distort key facts to fit their convictions neatly. Their views are akin to Impressionist paintings — they look great from a distance but messy on closer inspection.

Santorum and Bachmann see progress in Afghanistan. Despite a steady increase in violence since the American surge, Santorum calls the Taliban a “neutered force.” In Bachmann’s world, Kandahar has improved — I guess the onslaught of targeted assassinations of our allies is a positive sign after all.

Newt wrote a revisionist history of relations with Egypt, claiming Obama abandoned Mubarak “overnight.” Actually, the problem was the reverse: Obama and Secretary Clinton tried to hang on to Mubarak until they were behind the curve, not realizing that he was done. Newt hammered in on foreign-aid disbursements, saying he wants to start over with a blank slate. In fact, the sweeping review he proposes of the just over 1 percent percent of our budget dedicated to foreign aid would be far better applied to waste in the $700-billion-a-year defense budget; the Pentagon spent $20 billion just on air conditioning last year in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Know Nothings and the Selective Interpreters waste our time by making us more ill-informed, which is why I’d like to see a foreign-policy debate among Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman. Ron Paul would force a debate on our principles, and Huntsman would inject a dose of reality.

And Romney? He needs to be sufficiently challenged to force him out of sticking to sound bites. Romney has mastered all the issues an aspiring president needs to address, showcasing his foreign-policy studiousness without any stumble or particular triumph. Romney’s best moment wasn’t even on policy; it was his moment of authority contesting moderator Scott Pelley, who tried to short him 30 seconds on an answer.

Ron Paul contrasts most radically with Romney as the conviction candidate. His opposition to torture on moral and practical grounds — it’s “uncivilized” and lacks “practical advantages” — would make it more likely that Romney would have to weigh in on what underpins his beliefs instead of getting away with saying the convenient thing.

However, since the chances of the government adopting Ron Paul’s foreign policy are slim to none, the discussion is almost theoretical.

In one of the debate’s more substantive flashes, Huntsman showed that he’s the only candidate who can challenge Romney on the issues. When Romney cried currency war with China, Huntsman pointed out his fallacy (it’s not in the WTO’s mandate to take on currency manipulation). Huntsman was also the only candidate in the debate who had noticed a game-changing factor: “We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China,” he said. “They’re called the young people. They’re called the Internet generation.” These 500 million Internet users and 80 million bloggers, he continued, “are bringing about change.”

Unfortunately, discussion of a “21st-century foreign policy” wasn’t what took place on Saturday night. Unless Republicans elevate our own debate and talk with some seriousness about the reality of the world we live in and the beliefs that matter when it comes to our approach to foreign policy, Obama is likely to get another four years to continue splitting the difference on America’s role in the world.

— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.