Republican presidential candidates take the stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP

A foreign-policy party no more

Fairly early on in this week’s Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz was reminded about his recent quote in which he vowed to “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion,” testing whether “sand can glow in the dark.” Asked whether he’s prepared to decimate a populated city like Raqqa, informally known as the ISIS capital in Syria, the Texas senator hedged.
 
“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” Cruz said, adding, “[T]he object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.”
 
This plainly didn’t make any sense. It’s as if Cruz referenced carpet bombing – indiscriminate bombing of large areas, without regard for collateral damage – without having any idea what it means. To hear the Texas Republican tell it, there’s such a thing as precision, “directed” carpet bombing, which is a contradiction in terms.
 
The gibberish, however, was par for the course. Writing in the Washington Post, Dan Drezner, a center-right scholar, said yesterday, “When it comes to foreign policy, the GOP’s candidates for president in 2016 are either ignorant or insane.”
The overwhelming bulk of what the GOP candidates had to say last night was pure, unadulterated horses***. […]
 
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.
Keep in mind, this isn’t so much about subjective questions. Knowing what we know now, was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a good idea or a bad idea? Marco Rubio says it was a good idea; most people who’ve been conscious for the last 12 years say the opposite; and it can be a topic of spirited conversation.
 
When a center-right observer like Drezner talks about Republican presidential candidates being “either ignorant or insane,” he’s not referring to debatable judgment calls. He’s referring to an entire field of GOP candidates who at times seemed lost as to what foreign policies actually are.
 
Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted the debate was “devoted to national security and terrorism, about which most of the nine major candidates proved they knew nothing, a fact that some tried to conceal by making stuff up.”
 
How did the party that used to dominate on foreign policy fall to such cringe-worthy depths?
 
Part of the problem is likely the result of the demise of the Republican Party’s elder statesmen. In the not-too-distant past, the GOP was guided on foreign policy by responsible, learned hands – experienced officials like Dick Lugar, John Warner, and Brent Scowcroft – who approached international affairs with degree of maturity. Those Republicans now tend to agree with President Obama.
 
Which leads to another potential explanation: the more Obama represents some kind of “sensible center” on matters of foreign policy, the more his radicalized Republican critics feel the need to move even further to the right.
 
I also wouldn’t discount the role of post-policy thinking of the broader debate: the national GOP candidates are speaking to (and for) a party that has no patience for substantive details, historical lessons, nuance, or diplomacy. Heck, we’re talking about a party that has convinced itself that the key to defeating terrorists is literally using the phrase “radical Islam,” as if the words have magical national-security implications. That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s emblematic of a party that approaches foreign policy itself with all the maturity of a Saturday-morning cartoon.
 
Finally, some context is probably in order. At the end of the Bush/Cheney era, the GOP’s entire approach to international affairs was discredited and in tatters. It needed to be rebuilt, reconsidered, and molded anew into something coherent. That never happened – the intra-party debate never really occurred, except to the extent that Republicans agreed that Obama is always wrong, even when he’s right, and those who agree with him must always be rejected, even when they’re Republicans in good standing.
 
Taken together, there’s something genuinely pathetic about the Republican Party’s once-great credibility on these issues. As Rachel put it on the show last night, “We really need two parties who are good at this issue in order to have good policy on this issue. We need good debate because this stuff is hard and our best decisions will come out of good, robust debate. Can the Republican Party hold up its end of the debate?”
 
It’s hard to be optimistic, isn’t it?
 
 

Debates and Foreign Policy

A foreign-policy party no more