Texas governor Rick Perry says that, if he were president, he would order a no-fly zone over Syria. Former businessman Herman Cain says he would join Israel in attacking Iran—but, he adds prudently, only if it looked like the attack would succeed. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says he would too, but only as a “last recourse” and with the proviso that this joint military operation must upend the current Iranian regime. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney urges “crippling sanctions” against Iran and adds he would indict Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on some kind of “genocide” charge. Perry adds that he wouldn’t deal with Pakistan “until they show they have America’s interests in mind.” Gingrich avers that, if Pakistan won’t do as we wish in the war against the Taliban, by sufficiently killing America’s enemies on Pakistani soil, then the United States should tell the Pakistanis to just get out of the way and we’ll do the job—on their soil.
That’s just a taste of Tuesday night’s debate among the Republican presidential candidates, sponsored by CNN, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The topic was foreign policy, and like the last debate on that subject we saw a party much in the throes of a brand of thinking that goes by the name of “neoconservative.” The last time, many of the candidates fell over each other in their expressed resolve to bring Iran to its knees through covert activities that, upon being freely discussed, promptly lost any possibility of being covert.
This time the theme seemed to be that the opposition party doesn’t feel any need to recognize, much less honor, the sovereignty of other nations. Texas congressman Ron Paul, the lone agitated dissenter to all this, had to remind Governor Perry that a no-fly zone is an act of war because it violates another nation’s sovereign air space. When Cain and Gingrich said they would join Israel in preemptive military attacks on Iran, they were suggesting that America play a role akin to Japan’s when it bombed Pearl Harbor. Again, it’s dismissive of another nation’s sovereignty. One can only speculate on what basis Romney would reach into Iran and yank out its elected president for a crime that could match Romney’s label only with the most promiscuous use of the English language.
This is dangerous stuff. If a nation of America’s power were to stalk the globe with the kind of swagger and disregard for other nations’ interests and sovereignty that was reflected in that debate, the result would be a destabilized world. One has to wonder what kinds of crises would unfold if one of these candidates were to become president.
There were two dissenters—one agitated, the other measured. Ron Paul threw his libertarian philosophy into the fray with gusto. Israel isn’t going to bomb Iran, he said, because the majority of Israelis know the result would be disaster. “It’s not going to happen,” he said, noting correctly that there’s “a big debate in Israel” on the matter, and the hawks don’t seem to be winning. But, in any event, he said, if Israel wants to do that, let them; it’s their business, not ours. He adds a powerful proviso: “And they can suffer the consequences.”
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman was more cautious in his expressions, but he clearly takes a different view from most of his rivals. He said the United States doesn’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Most should come home, he said, adding perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 would be adequate to the mission at hand, which is to prevent a Taliban takeover of the country—and not to remake Afghanistan in some kind of Western image.
He said something else interesting: The American people are losing their patience for the long-running Afghan war. It was interesting because voter sentiment doesn’t seem to be much of a guiding factor with the neocon contingent.
It is true that the American people tend to delegate to their leaders the crucial decisions of foreign policy. When it comes to the economy—particularly the matter of jobs and their plentitude or paucity—the voters maintain a close eye on the actions of their governmental leaders and the results of their decisions. And if voters don’t like what they see, they pounce at the next election. But, on matters of war and peace, they take a more hands-off approach, presuming that elected officials understand the complexities of that area far better than they do. But delegation of authority comes with an implicit warning: Don’t mess it up.
When they do mess it up—as Harry Truman did in Korea, Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam and George W. Bush did in Iraq—then the swift consequence is a precipitous decline in political standing. Truman and Johnson, both eligible to run again, lost all prospect of retaining the presidency, while Bush’s party was unceremoniously tossed out at the next election.
These Republicans, leaving aside Paul and Huntsman, don’t seem to have any appreciation of this inherent political danger in presidential foreign-policy adventurism. And they certainly aren’t inhibited by any measured view of how nations foster peace by understanding and appreciating the legitimate interests of other nations, even adversarial ones.
Compare that to the words of Dwight Eisenhower when he was president in the 1950s. After some advisers quietly floated the idea that the administration might entertain stealthy air strikes against China to thwart any Vietnam involvement, Eisenhower promptly rejected any notion of “preventive war.” Asked about it at a news conference, he said, “I don’t believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”
Not exactly elegant of phrase, but eloquent of sentiment. There is a reason why we can say of Eisenhower today that he made no decision in eight years of presidential leadership that led to a single American military casualty.
But that was a long time ago and a different era. Now Eisenhower’s party is fueled by attitudes almost guaranteed to generate large numbers of American military casualties. That prospect was on vivid display on that debate stage on Tuesday.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.