Five Faulty Foreign Policies from the GOP National Security Debate

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Republican presidential candidates former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (L), former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney talk during a break as Texas Governor Rick Perry walks past them and businessman Herman Cain (R) checks his notes during a break at the CNN GOP National Security debate in Washington, November 22, 2011. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

As all surely expected from a field of candidates with little genuine foreign policy experience, a lot of silly things were said during last night’s GOP national security debate. Rick Santorum called Africa a “country.” Michelle Bachmann, who, as a sitting member of the House Intelligence Committee should know better, claimed the CIA under the Obama administration has no ability to carry out interrogations of suspected terrorists. And Herman Cain cited Iran’s mountains as objects of geo-strategic confusion. (You can cringe more while reading TIME’s masterful synopses of the debate by my colleagues over at Swampland.)

But Global Spin felt it necessary to point out some of the more dubious — at times, just ridiculous — arguments made by the Republican presidential candidates during the debate. There are substantive discussions to be had here and the candidates’ rhetoric and hyperbole, presented below, helps no one.

Warmongering over Iran

Michelle Bachmann made this declaration regarding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

He has said that if he has a nuclear weapon he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. He will use it against the United States of America.

This is a flat out lie. Yes, Ahmadinejad is a nasty piece of work and his rhetoric regarding Israel is incendiary and hateful. But often overlooked in the U.S. media is the fact that he never speaks openly about Iran’s right to nuclear weapons and to this day — see this Wednesday article in Haaretz — denies any desire on the part of his country to possess, let alone wield, a nuclear bomb. That may be his propagandistic bluster, but Bachmann’s blatant misrepresentation of fact is arguably worse.

Mitt Romney concocted this action plan (my emphases added):

The right course in America is to stand up to Iran with crippling sanctions, indict Ahmadinejad for violating the Geneva — or the Genocide Convention, put in place the kind of crippling sanctions that stop their economy.

In a call to get tough on Iran — mostly through sanctions — Romney throws in an inexplicable call to try Ahmadinejad for genocide. Last we checked, the definition of genocide didn’t involve squealing angry denials of the the Holocaust from a bully pulpit. Indeed, human rights groups may have more evidence to arrest former President George Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney on war crimes charges than they do for Ahmadinejad. So maybe Romney shouldn’t walk that line.

A horrible history lesson

Romney reached back into the Cold War and pulled out this episode in history, saying Pakistan can be transformed in a fashion similar to

…what happened in Indonesia back in the 1960s, where — where we helped Indonesia move toward modernity with new leadership. We — we brought them in the technology that allowed them to trade in the world. We need to bring Pakistan into the 21st century — or the 20th century, for that matter, so that they — they can engage throughout the world with trade and with modernity.

Where to begin with this? As was its wont in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. undermined and helped topple a number of populist, left-leaning regimes around the world. In Indonesia, a coup led by generals allegedly backed by the CIA sidelined the socialist-friendly Indonesian independence leader Sukarno and eventually replaced him with Gen. Suharto. What subsequently “happened in Indonesia back in the 1960s” was a bloody, fractious purge of communists and suspected sympathizers across the country, leading to somewhere between 500,000 to 1.2 million deaths in the space of a few years. Its legacy still smolders.

Perhaps by invoking “modernity,” Romney means to be gesturing to the decent record of economic development that came with decades of Suharto’s occasionally brutal authoritarian rule. Or perhaps he means the virtues of Indonesia’s multi-ethnic, secularist democracy that has emerged in recent years — still, as TIME’s Emily Rauhala points out, Indonesia is hardly free from its own bigoted extremists and radical religious factions. How any of these parallels help Pakistan — a country with a civil society and educated class as “modern” as any other, a torrid history of the military intervening in and dominating national politics, and its own longstanding, troubled relationship with Washington — is beyond me.

No, foreign aid is not worthless

Ron Paul chimed in predictably when asked about State Department aid to foreign countries:

I think the aid is all worthless. It doesn’t do any good for most of the people. You take money from poor people in this country and you end up giving it to rich people in poor countries.

Sure, he has a point. The U.S. ought to be lavishing less of its resources on adventures abroad and more on reviving its flagging fortunes at home. But to describe all civilian aid as “worthless” — particularly if you consider how it’s a drop in the bucket when set against Washington’s budget outlay on defense — is preposterous. It may have its flaws, it may get siphoned off by corrupt officials here and there, but U.S. aid still achieves concrete results in almost every continent, from providing farmers in, say, Ghana with better agricultural infrastructure to fighting disease and HIV in Southeast Asia. Foreign aid — rather than gunships and missiles — offers a far more clear-cut means to win hearts and minds elsewhere. And, at a time when China is splashing its largesse on projects across the world, the U.S. could certainly do without any further blows to its waning soft power.

A hapless doctrine

Rick Perry looked to Texas’s backyard — apparently all of Latin America — and took a stab at grand strategy:

I think it’s time for a 21st century Monroe Doctrine. When you think about what we put in place in the — in the 1820s, and then we used it again in the 1960s with the Soviet Union. We’re seeing countries start to come in and infiltrate. We know that Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico, as well as Iran, with their ploy to come into the United States.

As discussed above, the record of U.S. political meddling during the Cold War isn’t always the cleverest thing to invoke. Reports of suspected Iranian collusion with demagogic Latin American socialists and illicit narco-gangs prove fertile ground in GOP circles, but barely a talking point in the mainstream of policy conversation regarding the region. A murky assassination plot fronted by an alleged Iranian-American agent of Tehran, based in Texas, set off alarms in Washington, but the case has been met with broad skepticism by both Tehran’s detractors and allies.  There’s also little reliable evidence that Hamas is set up in Mexico in any meaningful way, let alone collaborating with drug cartels. Lastly, why bring up the Monroe Doctrine, an anachronism that still engenders resentment in many Latin American capitals? Perry wants to look muscular overseas, but the facts on the ground — the rise of Brazil, the growing predominance of Chinese interests in certain countries and even those of India and other emerging powers — mean that any overt American attempt to “shield” (as the Monroe Doctrine implied) the entire region from further foreign concerns will be futile and appear foolishly imperialist.

The real elephants in the room

At various intervals during the debate, CNN beamed images of protesters massed in Tahrir Square. Wolf Blitzer fitfully tried to turn the conversation toward the future of the Arab Spring. But the candidates seemed insensible to the plight of Egyptians struggling against a military establishment long propped up by American aid. Nor, when the conversation moved to Syria, did they express much interest in the mounting civilian death tolls there. See John Huntsman, probably the most articulate and well-prepared of the candidates:

We’ve got Syria now on the horizon, where we do have American interests. It’s called Israel. We’re a friend and ally. They’re a friend and ally. And we need to remind the world what it means to be a friend and ally of the United States.

Ending the rule of Syria’s Bashar Assad, as we’ve discussed, may not necessarily be in Israel’s interest given the possibility of a more populist, Islamist regime taking its place. No GOP candidate could reckon with what democracy may yield in the region — nor could they, given their strong loyalty to Israel’s right-wing government, speak up for the democratic aspirations of all peoples in the region. Instead, all droned on with talking points about Iran and precious little else. Same with other vital questions: How does the U.S. engage a debt-ridden Europe? How does it contend with the challenge posed by China? Don’t look to these candidates for real answers.