Much in the GOP presidential debates has been warm up. But with November panels focused on foreign policy-the first coming just days after news that Iran has taken dramatic steps to produce a nuclear weapon-we can hope to see mettle emerge from this field of eight. Perhaps the thus-far lackluster candidates might be ready to leave the circus midway, where the weapons are air guns and the prizes are stuffed toys, and move to the big tent, where the lights are blinding and the animals are real.
But judging by the Nov. 12 "commander-in-chief" debate in South Carolina, the GOP candidates are playing for the cheap prizes still. None of the gaffes could match Gov. Rick Perry's 53 seconds of forgetfulness from an earlier matchup, but given the subject matter and the headlines, the mistakes and misstatements should disturb us.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, though a member of the House Intelligence Committee, stumbled naming the provinces in south Afghanistan where our military personnel have been most heavily engaged in fighting the Taliban. Gov. Mitt Romney early on referred to Iranian democracy protesters as "insurgents," a term commonly used for Islamic militants and terrorists. Herman Cain, asked by moderators if Pakistan is a friend or foe, said: "We don't know."
Overall Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich proved the most agile at solving world crises in a 60-second window, but each at several points gave rote, even baffling responses. Gingrich called the Obama administration "soft" on Syrian president Bashir Assad and accused the president of having "dumped" Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but no one adequately confronted the president's erratic interventionism: his phoning Mubarak to demand he step down, sending the U.S. ambassador to meet with Syrian rebels, and turning a NATO no-fly zone into a combat operation to install an Islamist regime in Libya. These are ripe targets, yet no GOP hopefuls took aim.
Romney came on strong calling the communist regime in China "currency manipulators," and Gingrich gave the evening's rhetorical highlight when he said, "The degree to which the Arab Spring may become an anti-Christian Spring is something which bothers me a great deal ... and I would not be supportive of a regime which is explicitly hostile to religions other than Islam."
But the rest of the evening was banter filled with gauzy statements and easy slogans designed to win points without demonstrating these contenders know how to solve deadly threats, or present to the American people what's at stake.
Historically, the debate within the Republican Party on foreign policy and national security cleaved between Nixon-Kissinger realists and Reagan idealists. The realists favored détente, the containment of global threats. Reagan made them howl in 1983 when he called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," but he was determined to hold ideologies responsible for totalitarianism and broker little compromise with what should abhor us.
The realists with "their unrealistic realism neglected-to America's peril-the fundamental importance of ideology, ideals, and regime type as well as power in international politics," says Pepperdine University professor of public policy Robert G. Kaufman. Despite the Cold War victories that ensued under Reagan, today the realist remnant has potent allies-GOP isolationists like Rep. Ron Paul and a surprising cohort who embrace the liberal mantra that we cannot succeed in places like Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Today, a neo-Reaganite grand strategy would confront, not deny, the gathering danger of Islamic Fascism, particularly a fanatical Iranian regime determined to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. Today, a neo-Reaganite foreign policy would envisage a still dangerously authoritarian China as a competitor requiring containment as well as engagement," says Kaufman.
GOP contenders will have to face five threats that in my view surpass the challenges of the Cold War era: the imminent possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran; the proximity of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to ascendant terrorist networks; a resurgent al-Qaeda that continues to specifically threaten the United States; economic and authoritarian hegemony from China; and economic collapse in Europe, home to our staunchest allies. Yet from left to right in the face of such a gathering storm, our political leaders appear unserious, wandering in some three-ring circus.