The CNN/Heritage/AEI Foreign Policy Debate

Tuesday night’s debate, carried by CNN and co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, was the second in a row to focus on foreign policy issues.  As such, it included many of the same questions and answers as the previous CBS News debate, minus the weird Saturday night time slot and goofy, lag-tastic online-only final half hour. 

Another big difference was that CNN provided a great deal of stage time to the lower-tier candidates.  This might be a response to the controversy that broke out after Michele Bachmann’s campaign got hold of a CBS memo advising that her time in the spotlight be kept to a minimum because she’s a non-factor in the race.  Perhaps CNN didn’t want to be accused of creating a similar self-fulfilling prophecy of irrelevancy, or maybe they thought it would be interesting to give the single-digit candidates a final star turn before the primaries begin.

Or maybe CNN had a couple of candidates they really wanted to push, specifically Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul.  The conspiracy-minded might suspect left-leaning networks like giving Ron Paul heavy stage time during a debate like this because he’s a nut, and his weird broadcasts from outer space – about the harmless Taliban minding their own business as long as America doesn’t provoke them, or the necessity of giving al-Qaeda exactly what they want in order to defeat them – make the entire GOP look like space cadets. 

I noticed that for all of the clarity and consistency Paul’s hardcore followers insist on crediting him with, he dissolved into Jell-O during a simple talking-point answer about the War on Drugs, which he apparently thinks can be resolved by legalizing medical marijuana.  He also thinks he can boil the War on Terror down into bumper sticker slogans like “I have a personal belief that you never have to give up liberty for security,” which is patently absurd on its face – does anyone think air travel can be safe without at least a few teensy little temporary impositions on personal liberty? 

After Paul insisted that terrorism should be treated as a criminal matter, and cited Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as an example, Newt Gingrich effortlessly nuked him into orbit by simply observing: “Timothy McVeigh succeeded.  He killed people.”  It’s amazing there’s still room on the debate stage for someone who needs that explained to him.

Huntsman put some of his stage time to good use, offering a very detailed explanation of why Pakistan is a God-awful mess, speaking eloquently of Israel’s importance to American foreign policy, and castigating President Obama for missing out on the “Persian Spring” during the early months of his administration.  He also made a cogent point about the difficulty of bringing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to heel through sanctions, since “China and Russia won’t play ball.”

On the down side, Huntsman repeatedly insisted on scratching his fingernails across the “nation-building in America” chalkboard – a talking point that sounds awfully similar to Obama’s hunger for plowing the savings from military draw-downs into pork-barrel “infrastructure” projects.  He warned of the “trust deficit” with regard to our official institutions, which he sees as a danger to national security… while others might view it as a contagious outbreak of common sense.

Huntsman also leans far too heavily on the idea of solving tense military situations by strategically planting special operations units here and there, to kick precision butt.  I’m a long-time admirer of American special operators myself, but they’re not a replacement for regular troop concentrations. 

If Huntsman does become President, I suggest tasking Newt Gingrich with using his beloved Lean Six Sigma cost-control program to create a cheap but deadly special forces unit, SEAL Team Six Sigma – dubbed by Twitter correspondent ExJon as “The LEAN Berets.”  Gingrich could put them under the command of the beautiful, deadly, sustainable female sniper known only as “The Chilean Model.”

The Chilean Model was Newt Gingrich’s date tonight, after he managed to woo her away from Herman Cain.  Gingrich spoke at length about the Chilean approach to Social Security reform, either borrowing or co-opting the policy caboose of the Cain Train with aplomb.  Cain didn’t seem upset by this. 

Gingrich otherwise provided his usual eloquent performance.  For once the debate moderator, Wolf Blitzer, escaped without getting a Newton Bomb dropped on him.  (He did get renamed “Blitz” by a distracted Herman Cain, but that’s a flesh wound compared to what usually happens to moderators who come within range of the Gingrich artillery.)  Blitzer had one really bad moment, when he countered Gingrich’s call for a “massive all-sources energy program in the United States” by insisting that energy independence would take “many years” to achieve.  Liberals have been saying that for many years.

Gingrich was having none of it, scoffing at the notion that every worthwhile project supposedly takes forever to complete, even though our forefathers got things done faster using less potent technology.  He was careful to lay out the distinction between the requirements of national security and criminal law, explaining that the maintenance of a flawless defense against the growing threat of mass-destruction terrorism cannot be conducted within the framework of criminal prosecution.  Far from repudiating the Patriot Act, Gingrich said he would consider strengthening it, because “we can’t afford to allow even one nuclear weapon into American cities.”

Every Gingrich debate appearance comes with a few bonus outside-the-box moments.  Tuesday night’s offerings included his mention of electromagnetic pulse weapons as a future national security threat he worries about (and which his frequent collaborator William Forstchen just happens to have written a terrific novel about.)  Also, we learned of Gingrich’s aggressive plan for derailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which involves cutting off their supply of gasoline and sabotaging their only refinery, to bring the theocracy to its knees.  That sounds like a job for SEAL Team Six Sigma!

Rick Perry had a good night, although he couldn’t seem to pull much applause from the crowd.  He looked a bit nervous when the Texas DREAM Act skeleton began rattling in his closet, but he handled the issue far more smoothly than he ever has before.  In fact, his general approach to immigration issues was largely adopted by Newt Gingrich.  That doesn’t make it perfect, but it does mean Perry isn’t a pariah on the stage when illegal aliens come up, and Perry seems to have developed more of an appetite for discussing his positions, instead of calling those who disagree “heartless.”

Perry did a tremendous job of changing the subject to the recent failure of the Super Committee (I promised myself I’d award bonus points to whichever candidate pulled that off) and clobbered Obama’s appalling lack of leadership on the deficit.  “He just pitched the budget to the Super Committee,” Perry maintained, “and said here, figure this out.”  Perry described the Super Committee as a “super failure” and highlighted his own plans for a balanced budget.  That’s the kind of fighting spirit Republican primary voters want to see in their nominee.

There weren’t many takers for Perry’s idea of establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, which he floated the other day, and seemed to be rolling back a bit without completely disowning it.  It’s unclear what might be flying around Syria that Perry wants to shoot down, since Bashar Assad’s storm troopers do most of their work on foot, or from tanks. 

Perry found himself at odds with Michele Bachmann over his desire to severely curtail foreign aid to Pakistan, until they prove they can be trusted.  Bachmann called this position “naïve” and emphasized the importance of retaining influence in Pakistan, whose nuclear arsenal is held just beyond al-Qaeda’s fingertips.  Proper use of the foreign policy checkbook is a long-running debate.  “Why Do We Give Money To People Who Hate Us?” is the B-side of everyone’s favorite single, “We Can’t Afford Foreign Aid Anymore.” 

In this particular case, Bachmann’s hard-nosed realism was a bit more compelling, although making the Pakistanis work harder for those foreign aid dollars is not a bad idea, and Perry did a fine job of explaining why we can’t trust the Pakistani intelligence services.  (Gingrich chipped in, “We were told killing bin Laden in Pakistan drove U.S. – Pakistani relations to a new low.  Well, it should have, because we should be furious.”)  It’s a shame we have to worry so much about Pakistan falling into various unfriendly orbits, but that’s nuclear proliferation for you.

As usual, things got messy when the subject of illegal immigration came up.  Much will doubtless be made of Gingrich’s declaration that illegals who were brought into the United States as children, and have lived otherwise law-abiding lives, should not be deported or separated from their families.  He cited a period of 25 years repeatedly, but Mitt Romney pointed out that a very small subset of the illegal population has been living in the United States for 25 years or longer, and policy should not be formulated with only that small group in mind. 

This is not a new stance for Gingrich – he’s spoken often about the difficult of “deporting 11 million people” – and it’s bound to raise the hackles of anyone who remembers how swimmingly the last big amnesty deals worked out.  The problem is that general sentiments about the unwillingness of Americans to break up illegal families with deportation orders must be translated into concrete policies.  Would Gingrich be okay with deporting all illegals who have resided in the United States for 24 years or less?  Or should the line be drawn at 10 years?  Five?  One?

As Romney, Bachmann, and even Perry pointed out, the promise of amnesty – let alone special benefits and welfare programs – is a “magnet” for drawing illegal aliens

It was a “meh” night for Herman Cain, who confronted every issue by emphasizing the importance of rebuilding America’s economic strength.  That’s a good point, but it’s hardly a universal answer to the intricacies of foreign affairs.  Cain was otherwise fairly subdued, beyond allowing that if Israel came up with an “exceptionally good” plan for wiping out Iran’s nuclear weapons, he could see himself joining in.  Cain seemed primarily concerned with not shooting himself in the foot, and can claim some degree of success in that endeavor, but it wasn’t the kind of performance that’s going to move any poll numbers.  It won’t hurt him, either.  A lot of voters feel roughly the same way about foreign policy as Cain does, which means they probably weren’t watching this debate.

Mitt Romney was solid but low-key, aside from taking a swipe at Newt Gingrich for dangling the amnesty “magnet” over the border.  He fought a brief skirmish with Jon Huntsman over Afghanistan troop draw-downs, which Romney opposes, citing the opposition of commanders on the ground.  Other than that, he was either trying to stay out of the scrum, or not getting a lot of time in the spotlight.  Given the cautious campaign Romney has been running thus far, tonight probably didn’t give his campaign team anything to worry about.

Rick Santorum doesn’t produce a lot of sound-bite magic, but he had some interesting thoughts about the importance of hanging on to conservative principles when reaching “compromise” agreements with Democrats, and made the very sharp observation that Obama has “poisoned the well” in Congress by focusing exclusively on his re-election campaign.  Santorum has a simple, straightforward agenda, which includes a key component of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States by zeroing out corporate taxes on them, a goal he believes is essential to national security.

Overall, the evening went best for Gingrich and Romney, who did nothing to disturb their front-runner statuses.  Nobody else in the race can really afford to be standing still right now, although Cain and Perry can be grateful for arresting their poll slides.  A nation concerned with serious domestic issues is likely to grade foreign policy debates as “pass or fail” affairs.