Politics & Policy

A Debate Without a Difference

Well, maybe Ron Paul...

Should MSNBC be held responsible for misrepresenting the event they hosted Thursday night as a debate? Judging by the views of the Republican presidential candidates, there is very little argument inside the party over what needs to be done in the world and in particular in the Middle East. Iraq: Stay the course. Iran: Threaten attack. Osama bin Laden: Kill him.

Maybe later in the campaign the press will find ways to create wedges between the candidates, but for now the only dispute seems to be which one of them will get to pull the trigger on bin Laden. The moderators tried to drum up some controversy — for example goading candidates to criticize President Bush (which they chose not to do, at least by name — Iraqi President Maliki got more mentions). They tried to create a dustup by asking Governor Jim Gilmore to pick sides in a supposed disagreement between Mitt Romney and John McCain over the effort to find Osama bin Laden. Gilmore chose not to take the bait. It was a little unfair to since the ground rules forbad candidates asking questions of each other. And because each participant was asked slightly different questions about national-security issues, their answers were not always directly comparable. But this approach also allowed the questioners to cover more ground, which was wise given the number of candidates and the likelihood of repetitive responses. So taken in aggregate the candidates presented a coherent if superficial national-security policy.

Yes, there was Rep. Ron Paul, one of the six congressional Republicans who voted against the war in Iraq, repeating his perennial non-interventionist libertarian position. But because the show’s format did not allow candidates actually to debate or ask probing questions, his heterodox views made little impact. (Paul’s best line was his answer to the question whether he would work to phase out the IRS: “Immediately.”)

With respect to Iraq, all the non-Paul candidates thought winning the war was a better idea than precipitously pulling out. Some chose to critique the mistakes that got us where we are, Senator McCain for example saying the war was “terribly mismanaged,” and Governor Huckabee saying the root of the problem was putting the responsibility for war planning in the hands of “civilians in silk ties” rather than generals “with mud and blood on their boots and medals on their chests.” But most candidates focused on the future. Unfortunately they did not have a lot to offer in the way of novel suggestions. Governor Romney said we need strong leadership. Senator McCain said stay the course and back the Maliki government. Rep. Duncan Hunter touted building up the Iraqi Army. Senator Sam Brownback said stand up for our values and work with those in the region who will work with us. All well and good, but where’s the kebab?

Governor Tommy Thompson was the only candidate who brought a plan. First, hold a referendum in Iraq asking whether Coalition forces should stay or go. If they vote us out, we leave. If not, we gain legitimacy. An interesting idea, but even if the Iraqis agreed to it they would probably word the referendum in a way that would give them plausible outs no matter how the vote went. Thompson also proposed elections at the provincial level to end internecine conflict. Of course Iraq has already had provincial elections, and they did not stop the violence, so this was not his best suggestion. Third, he proposed a three-way division of the oil revenue in the country between the national government, the provincial governments, and each Iraqi citizen. This idea has some merit in terms of giving people buy-in to the system, but it has several problems, such as: the plan would have to be implemented by the Iraqis, not us, and they are unlikely to; it would never be administered justly even if it were put in place; and it all sounds a lot like the kind of system we fought the Cold War to extinguish. I’m certain the shade of Ronald Reagan was wondering why no-one was talking about the need in Iraq for property law reform and free market economics.

Iran came in for some tough talk. Duncan Hunter noted that Iran is supplying weapons that are being used to kill Americans in Iraq, and the US “has license to take whatever actions are necessary” to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Senator McCain also had hard words for the Iranians, citing his fear that they would develop nuclear weapons and place them in the hands of terrorists. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Tom Tancredo both noted the danger posed by Iranian President Ahmadinejad, an irrational actor who can’t be trusted with that kind of power. Ahmadinejad “has to understand it’s not an option, he cannot have nuclear weapons,” Giuliani said. Most candidates endorsed some kind of action against Iran, including the use of force if necessary to prevent Iran achieving a nuclear capability. Again, this mirrors current policy, and one wonders if the threats of action are credible. We may say that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable,” but if we take no action to stop Tehran’s nuclear program, we will have to accept whatever comes of it. Maybe in future debates the candidates can be pinned down more on how to motivate the Iranians. Giuliani recalled that back in 1981 “they looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes and in two minutes they released the hostages.” True, but two years later they killed 300 Marines in Beirut and were never made to pay for it. I have yet to be convinced that any American politician is up to the challenge posed by Iran.

There was substantial agreement among the candidates on the matter of Osama bin Laden. Governor Romney had to overcome being framed by the moderators as “soft” on bin Laden and stated flatly, “he is going to pay, and he will die.” He also noted that we are not at war with one person, but with a global jihadist movement seeking to establish a caliphate and ultimately take down the United States. Senator McCain, not to be outdone, said he would “follow [bin Laden] to the gates of Hell” to bring him to justice. Other spoke on the need to improve the US image in the Muslim world generally, through engaging moderates (Brownback) or appealing in good faith to the aspirations of the people (Gilmore). But there were no new ideas on how to fight terrorism, nothing that wasn’t already U.S. policy.

In sum it was a very conservative performance. There was nothing to suggest that any of the candidates would pursue a substantially or even moderately different national-security strategy were they in power. (Again, excepting Ron Paul.) We have yet in this campaign to hear a fresh, exciting idea about the future of the United States in the world. And while most of the candidates invoked Ronald Reagan, in so doing they only reinforced the sense of his absence. None of them were able to conjure up the sense of purpose that Reagan could when discussing the issues that framed the Cold War. And it’s not as though we are not again engaged in a global struggle against a hostile, violent, revolutionary ideology. The candidate who can successfully frame the debate at that level, in a way that is simple yet compelling, in a voice that speaks to the average voter’s concerns and hopes for the future, can carry the election. Maybe next time.


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