Saturday night live

    The Republican presidential candidates are lucky that so few Americans seem focused these days on foreign policy. Because otherwise the candidates would stand woefully exposed for their dearth of knowledge, and their serial inability to bridge the chasm between their simplistic stump lines and the thorny nuanced choices that are so often required in the real world.And it was lucky as well that their first foreign policy debate was staged on a Saturday night, when most viewers are likely to be out to dinner, on the town, or simply tuned out. CBS, a co-sponsor, didn’t even bother to air the full debate, cutting away in most markets at 9 p.m. EST to broadcast one of their crime shows. Can’t blame the network for that call, considering the spectacle it left behind.It was almost painful watching the candidates as they sought to pump up their non-existent foreign policy creds. Rick Perry, for instance: “I have been the commander in chief of over 20,000-plus individuals in the state of Texas as we’ve dealt with a host of either natural disasters or having deployments into the combat zone. So, if there’s someone on this stage who has had that hands-on commander in chief experience, it is me, as the governor of the State of Texas.” (Italics are mine.)There it was, another “oops” moment. In reality, Gov. Perry has no say whatsoever concerning the deployment of Texas National Guard troops to combat zones. On that front he has no “hands-on commander in chief experience,” because Pentagon makes all decisions on when, where, and for how long the Texas Guard troops will serve abroad.Meanwhile, Herman Cain insisted that he’d know how to make the right call during a crisis because he’d be guided by “the right people.” As in: “The approach to making a critical decision, first make sure that you surround yourself with the right people. And I feel that I’ll be able to make that assessment when we put together the cabinet and all of the people from the military, et cetera.”That remark begged the key question: Why should a guy who is unfamiliar with the term “neoconservative,” and who was unaware until last week that China has been nuclear since 1964, be trusted to choose “the right people” in the first place? I have no doubt he’d know “the right people” to help market a barbecue-chicken pizza campaign, but what are his criteria for choosing foreign policy advisers? Still no clue. (And Cain does need advice, badly. During the debate, he said that we can best confront Iran in part by reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Presumably, “the right people” would at least inform Cain that we don’t import any oil from Iran, thanks to our economic embargo.)But Cain probably won’t be the nominee anyway. Mitt Romney still seems the likelier choice, but, as an expounder of foreign policy, he manages to cover every base without standing firm on any. (No surprise there.) In a debate last June, he said that we should bring out troops home from Afghanistan “as soon as we possibly can,” and that we shouldn’t be fighting “a war of independence for another nation.” Yet on Saturday night he said that we should keep a military footprint in Afghanistan for another three years. And when he was asked whether it would be smart for us to negotiate a political solution with the Taliban, he replied: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with the Taliban.”Well, that stance puts him at odds with ex-Pentagon chief Robert Gates and current CIA chief David Petraeus – neither of whom are commonly viewed by Republicans as girly men. They’re both quite aware that there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan. Here’s Gates, not long ago: “We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most wars end.” And last year, Petraeus voiced approval for preliminary talks between the Taliban and President Karzai’s government by saying: “This is the way you end insurgencies.”Romney’s “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” line is just raw meat for the stump; real foreign policy requires far more nuanced decisions, often in very difficult circumstances. Take, for instance, the issue of how to confront Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Romney called on Saturday night for “crippling sanctions.” But, as foreign policy experts rightly argue, “crippling sanctions” can easily backfire, because decimating the economy would weaken civil society and strengthen the government’s authoritarian grip. One influential reformist Iranian politician, Mehdi Karroubi, has reportedly warned that “sanctions have given an excuse to the government to suppress the opposition, by blaming them for the unstable situation in the country.”Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, had his own ideas for what President Obama should do: “Covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program…including taking out their scientists, breaking up their systems.” That’s cheap stump rhetoric, because the Obama team, by definition, is constrained from publicly discussing its current and planned covert operations. And yet, there is every indication that the Obama team is already doing (and/or condoning) precisely what Gingrich claims it is not. According to one extensive report this month, the Iranian nuclear program has been slowed considerably by a covert cyberwar, and by the assassination of a key scientist (which has sparked fears among surviving scientists that they too may be targeted).And speaking of cheap stump rhetoric, we had Rick Perry’s attack on foreign aid. Conservative debate audiences love to hear attacks on foreign aid – oblivious, of course, to the fact that foreign aid constitutes one percent of the federal budget. Perry’s big idea (which Romney and Gingrich endorsed) is that “every country is going to start at zero dollars” of foreign aid until it proves it loyalty to America.But then Perry was asked whether this should apply to Israel. His response was that “absolutely, every country should start at zero.”(By the way, can you imagine how these candidates would react if Barack Obama ever suggested that Israel should start with no foreign aid? They’d scream how he was “throwing Israel under the bus,” and that in turn would spark another round of groundless stories about how Jews are poised to desert the Democratic party.)Anyway, there was one little problem with Perry’s big idea:The briefing team that labors to fill the space between Perry’s ears forgot to inform him that President Bush in 2007 formally committed America to a foreign-aid package for Israel – extending over a span of 10 years.Oops, Perry did it again.And oh how quickly he backpedaled. Seconds after saying that “every country should start at zero,” he hastened to add that “obviously Israel is a special ally and my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level.” So much for his big idea. (As for Romney, he indicated during the debate that Perry’s idea was great…but after the debate, Romney’s spinners said that he would exempt Pakistan.)Such is the gist of what happened while you were enjoying your Saturday night. Foreign-policy debates are mostly a waste of time anyway, because there’s often a severe disconnect between what candidates say and what the winner actually does in office. I can well remember the autumn 2000 debate when George W. Bush spoke so forcefully in opposition to “nation-building” – a scant three years before he endeavored to remake Iraq.But even though words are cheap, none on Saturday night were cheaper than this particular howler, from Michele Bachmann: “The ACLU is running the CIA.”I understand that she’s desperate for a memorable sound, given the fact that she’s sinking beneath the waves faster than a body wrapped in chains. But still. I’m sure that General Petraeus (who not long ago was routinely extolled by conservatives as a demigod) would be amused to learn that he’s a puppet of the ACLU. As a matter of fact, isn’t the ACLU actually suing the CIA for assassinating American-born terrorist Anwar al Awlaki? Yes indeed.But hey, Bachmann and her rivals can take comfort in the fact that so few voters paid any attention. Unfortunately, they’ll all be back for another foreign policy debate eight days from now. Heaven help us.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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