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Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Republican Crazy Train Tackles Foreign Policy

All of the Republican candidates for President spent the week of 10/7 preparing for a debate in South Carolina focusing on foreign policy. With a few exceptions, the sense of logic and subtlety conveyed by the candidates' answers would be comical if the subject matter didn't involve issues already addressed with the same flawed logic that have cost the United States trillions of dollars over the past twelve years.

A play-by-play analysis of the questions and answers in the so-called "Commander-in-Chief" debate has a very short shelf-life. The details can be read in their entirety at:


It's more useful to organize the insights offered by the candidates into a few key themes -- themes that will come up repeatedly throughout the campaign.

Listening to the Generals -- Principle or Dodge?

Ahhhhh, an oldie but a goodie. This one has become quite popular with novice Presidential candidates in both parties over the past four elections. After the disaster of Vietnam, a certain segment of the political class and voting public came to the conclusion that we lost the war in Vietnam because a bunch of meddling politicians "held back" somehow and didn't leave the battle to the professionals -- the generals. If only we had the manhood to stick it out dumping more tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, we would have emerged with our honor intact and another check in the Win column -- completely ignoring the fact that America dropped more bombs on Vietnam (6.7 million tons) than we did during World War II (3.3 million tons).

After fifteen years of relative military timidity, the US became more inclined towards action in the early 1990s using the so-called Powell Doctrine as a proxy for serious thought about when, why and how to deploy military force. Among other things, the Powell Doctrine states force should only be deployed if

a) an obvious national security interest is involved
b) a clear objective is identified and stated
c) a clear exit strategy is defined with objective criteria for executing that exit strategy
d) the country is willing to go all out in the effort
e) every other non-military solution has been tried

These bullets all sound logical but in reality, the Powell Doctrine has NOT been followed. Instead, it has been used to short circuit the analysis process within the government and military and sell poorly thought out missions to the public with a bizarre form of mental jujitsu that allows the Commander in Chief to state as a given that all of the criteria of the Doctrine have been met -- hence this press conference or address outlining the grim choice to the public -- and the very nature of the undesirable action being proposed must mean it is the correct action to take, knowing a politician could never hoodwink voters into a war by making it sound like a cakewalk. After the strategic mistake takes flight, that same jujitsu is used to reinforce the same flawed thinking and continue the mistake. Rather than wuss out, I need to "man up" and continue accepting a variety of difficult choices presented by my military, thus proving I'm capable of making the "tough choices."

For a novice running for President, the "listen to the generals" line is a perfect dodge from answering more pertinent questions about prioritizing resources between guns and butter. Of course, Herman Cain was among those to use the "listen to the generals" dodge in the debate in his responses to questions about the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Saying you'd "listen to the generals" about when to withdraw from Iraq rather than declaring a timetable for doing so overlooks the following facts:

* Iraq refused to renew Status of Forces rules that would exempt American soldiers from criminal prosecution
* a continued presence in Iraq is not improving security on the ground
* a continued presence in Iraq is continuing to reduce troop readiness and supply readiness
* the American people no longer support a continued presence in Iraq
* the American people are clearly unwilling to pay taxes to PAY for a continued presence in Iraq
* the resulting debt from the war has helped to cripple our economy and long term fiscal health

Rick Santorum offered his own frightening twist on listening to the experts in response to a question about the leadership style he would implement as President. His response:

Well, I'll come into-- to the office of the presidency with a very clear agenda. And we'll-- I'll get people together that will share my point of view. When I was in the United States Senate, I didn't hire people who didn't share how I approach the problem. That's what the people of this country are electing. They're electing someone who's gonna be very crystal clear. And as you heard from my first two answers, I don't mince words. I say exactly what I believe.

And then I follow through and do what I say. I did that when I was in public life before, even though I represented a state that wasn't particularly conservative state. I followed through and did that. And I will surround myself with people who will execute what I promise the American public to do. And then we will go about the process of doing it.


That might be the single most frightening answer of the entire debate -- and that's saying something. Santorum is basically guaranteeing the American public he will lock himself in the White House surrounded by people who think EXACTLY like him on everything and that he and his team will proceed post haste, hellbent and unflinching, towards the direction he believes voters set by voting for him, any subsequent facts or changes in circumstances after the election be damned. Is this really someone you want within ten miles of the Situation Room or the national checkbook?

Torture Tactics and Tortured Logic

The November 12 debate also raised an interesting parallel to the "listen to the generals" dodge when the topic of torture was discussed. Support or opposition to waterboarding was first posed as a question to Herman Cain who promptly, unambiguously stated he does not support torture --- "Period" -- He said he supports the policies established by our military and would trust the judgement of our military leaders about what constitutes torture. He then promptly stated that he doesn't believe waterboarding constitutes torture and that he would re-instate it as an option. Again, an interesting contradiction to the "listen to the generals" principle, given that the practice was forbidden by the Army Field Manual and was not used by the US military until it was reintroduced by the CIA in Iraq and other black sites under cover of a flawed legal opinion manufactured during the Bush Administration by John Yoo and the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel AGAINST the guidance provided by the military.

The same question was posed to Michelle Bachman who also stated her unambiguous support for the reinstatement of waterboarding as a legal tactic on the battlefield and elsewhere. Bachmann cites her short tenure on the House Select Committee on Intelligence as one of her foreign policy bona fides but a) wasn't on the committee at the time key decisions were reviewed for major terrorist actors and b) has not apparently considered a huge volume of analysis and reporting from people like Mark Bowden (see #1 for How to Break a Terrorist), Jane Mayer (see #2 for The Dark Side) and former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan (see #3) that shows torture not only failed to deliver actionable intelligence that thwarted attacks but it actually DELAYED and sometimes STOPPED progress that was being made with traditional legal tactics.

Bachmann followed up the debate and her tough-as-nails posturing on torture with an appearance on Meet The Press November 13. Despite a lead-in question from David Gregory stating that her support of waterboarding is in conflict with not only the current head of the CIA, David Petraeus, and tortured POW and former Republican Presidential candidate John McCain but the majority of the Pentagon brass as well, Bachman doubled down on the crazy by stating that taking waterboarding off the table essentially publishes our practices to the enemy, allowing them to train in advance for possible conditions if eventually captured and weakening our ability to capture battlefield intelligence. The only public figure Bachman could cite in support of her position? Dick Cheney.

The only two candidates who demonstrated the presence of any brain cells or a moral conscience were Jon Hunstman and Ron Paul, who both categorically rejected the use of torture in general and waterboarding in particular as ineffective, immoral and un-American.

Fighting a Trade War or Cold War with China

With the exception of some thoughtful caveats from Jon Huntsman, the Republican toolkit for dealing the numerous problems between the United States and China boils down to only two choices --- a trade war or a cold war. Rick Perry attempted to throw the gauntlet down and make a big sound bite splash by saying we need to declare that China will end up on the ash heap of history, as Ronald Reagan stated about the Soviet Union.

Really? That line might work in a 1980s context of cold war between two nuclear powers that had been fighting proxy wars against each other for 30 years. It makes far less sense as a strategy for managing a relationship with a country whose power and influence has grown in direct response to policies and spending by the American government and thousands of individual outsourcing and manufacturing decisions made by Corporate America. How exactly does Romney expect to bury a country on the ash heap of history that has lent our government $1.16 trillion? (#4)

If the Republican Party truly thinks the solution to the "China problem" is "burying" a country with 1.33 billion people on the "ash heap of history," they have a spectacular lack of perception of what's currently happening and a spectacular lack of imagination for alternatives. Why did no candidate speak of reviewing tax rules that might be treating construction of a plant in China with equal benefits as construction of a plant in America? Why did no one mention an effort to support groups within China fighting for improved working conditions and environment regulations -- changes that would drastically weaken the cost advantage China enjoys over US manufacturing because it can still treat workers in iPod and computer factories as mere one-in-1.33-billion disposable units of production?

Foreign Aid and Fits of Pique

Any discussion of foreign aid in a political context has to start by understanding why the issue is coming up and the assumptions made before the discussion even begins. Most American voters think the US spends more on foreign aid than defense. If asked, most Americans think foreign aid spending should be around ten percent of the budget -- an amount approximately TEN TIMES current actual spending. (see #5)

Spending on foreign aid can provide short term and long term benefits in a few key areas:

* providing tactical, short term relief for disaster recovery from floods, earthquakes, etc.
* providing resources to avoid or at least minimize human-led disasters from genocide or famine
* establishing contacts with people below the top tier of a government, providing crucial insight into a country's economic and political power structure

Rick Perry has a vastly different view of the purpose of foreign aid. Based on his comment in the debate, Perry views foreign aid as a major budget savings candidate (it's not) and a form of yearly scorecard keeping by which the United States can punish or reward our friends and allies based upon their behavior and the political trade winds within our election cycle. Perry stated he would zero-base the aid budget for every country every year. While neither debate moderator had the sense to pose a follow-up question about the practical implications, an online viewer did, asking "Would you zero-base Israel's budget too?" Perry immediately recognized the political twilight zone he had fallen into and stated Israel would be zero-based like everyone else but that he assumed they would continue to enjoy a substantial yearly aid budget.

Miscellaneous Head Scratchers

The debate offered a healthy dose of one liners that raise additional questions that best fit thematically under the general category of "Huh?"

The candidates were asked to identify actions they would take that have not been taken by the Obama Administration in response to the conduct of Iran and Pakistan. Newt Gingrich drew an analogy to some sort of top-secret triumvirate between Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II that resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union and said he'd pursue similar partnerships against Iran. Swallowing the whole Reagan/Thatcher/Pope anti-communist Axis theory as a given, it would then appear that high on Newt's "to do" list upon entering the Oval Office would be "elect Iranian Pope" and "make Catholicism wildly popular in Tehran." I guess the devils are in the details.

Cain and Santorum appeared confused about whether Pakistan was or was not a key ally of the United States. Cain stated it wasn't clear. Santorum stated Pakistan MUST be an ally -- they are a nuclear power. Both seemed to grasp the difficulty of managing a relationship with a country whose geography is strategic but whose internal politics and social divisions prevent their conduct and our response from being neatly categorized into nice boxes. However, Cain and Santorum were either unable to correctly assemble the language to describe those nuances and shades of gray or were unwilling to use such language in front of an audience demanding simple black and white / good or bad answers. Either way, not an inspiring performance. By the way, for future reference, the correct answer to the question would be:

Pakistan is a country we have treated as a political and military ally whose actual conduct since 1997 has materially harmed its own interests and those of the United States. Pakistan has been attempting to balance the power of moderates and extremists by working with America while still actively supporting Islamic terrorists and would-be nuclear powers by selling nuclear technology to countries like North Korea, China, Iran, Libya and Iraq. America must structure any aid and military support to Pakistan in ways which provide complete transparency to ensure those resources aid moderation in the country and can never be diverted to extremist factions within the country fighting American goals throughout the world.

Rick Perry was stumped by what should have been an OBVIOUS follow-up question to his debate gaffe earlier in the week and his failure to remember "Department of Energy" as the third target of his cost cutting in the Cabinet. When asked how he would manage the country's nuclear weapons stockpile and program after eliminating the DOE, Perry immediately pivoted towards answering a prior question to another candidate. Either Perry didn't realize that DOE manages the nuclear arsenal and its development or he didn't realize entire departments of the government cannot be eliminated with the stroke of a pen without ensuring continuation of crucial obligations. Come to think of it, with Perry, that's not an "or" scenario.

At one point in the debate, the candidates discussed the merits and legality of killing American citizens acting abroad against America. After a few responses, the net Republican response appeared to converge upon the idea that a person, US citizen or not, acting abroad essentially in a theatre of war against American forces is essentially outside US criminal law and is essentially at war against America and can be taken out. That seems to be exactly the conclusion reached by the Obama Administration which approved a drone attack on September 30, 2011 that targeted and killed Anwar Al-Awlaki and wound up killing Samir Khan who was traveling with him. The two were leading bombing and propaganda efforts for al-Qaeda in Yemen. So much for policy contrast.


#1) http://watchingtheherd.blogspot.com/2007/04/how-to-break-terrorist.html

#2) http://watchingtheherd.blogspot.com/2008/10/book-review-dark-side.html

#3) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/8833108/Torture-is-not-wrong-it-just-doesnt-work-says-former-interrogator.html

#4) http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2011/07/19/business/2110719_yuan_graphic.html

#5) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-foreign-aid/2011/04/25/AF00z05E_story.html