Republican TV Debates About National Security Are Just Silly Posturing – Huntsman Is The Only Sensible Candidate


By Paolo von Schirach

November 24, 2011

WASHINGTON – The Republicans fighting for the GOP presidential nomination want to appear tough and bellicose on Iran. “Iran will never be allowed to get a nuclear weapon”, they intone. Unlike Obama, who let them do anything they wanted, a Republican president will….will do what exactly? No good options out there, if one thinks of the likely consequences of military action against dispersed and hardened Iranian nuclear facilities. But right now the GOP bunch is not governing. They are only posturing. And so they can liberally –and in fact irresponsibly– threaten military actions that most experts believe to be extremely risky.

Bomb Iran?

A nuclear Iran would be a real problem; but disabling Iran’s program through military action would not be easy. Thinking people know that Iran can retaliate by disrupting oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. It can mobilize its friends in Lebanon against Israel. It can attack Israel directly. And you would see oil prices jump to $ 200 a barrel (or a lot more) for God knows how long, with a devastating impact on already weak western economies. But the Republicans who will bomb anything anytime are not bothered by these details. In any event, this is not serious. Right now thye’ll say anything to get a few more thousand votes in Iowa or New Hampshire. Let’s think about the consequences of this bombast another time.

Militarize the border with Mexico?

And the same desire to appear tough applies to the Mexican border issue. We learn from Governor Rick Perry of Texas that Mexico is not just about hapless migrant workers seeking a few bucks picking lettuce in America. No, it is about Hezbollah and al Qaeda using this unmanned front line to get all their people into America. Really? And how many have actually made it? How many al Qaeda operatives have we actually caught at the border? How many managed to get in using this mode of entry? Securing the border is a good thing. But candidates should not be allowed to get away with this nonsense.

No questions about what the mission in Afghanistan should be

And what about Afghanistan? Well, same story. We need to be tough. And therefore we need to keep the troops there and not withdraw them prematurely as (weak) president Obama announced. But the troops are there to do what? Well, to defeat the Taliban insurrection and to pacify the country so that it will develop into a peaceful democracy, of course. And why is this now the mission, since we started the conflict in 2001 to go after al Qaeda’s training camps?

Amazingly, in a whole TV debate about national security, this fundamental issue was not even placed on the table. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is the only candidate who volunteered to address this basic point, namely: “What is exactly the mission in Afghanistan? What are we doing there?” But, by doing so, he was described by front-runner Mitt Romney as weak on defense.

Huntsman laid out a sensible policy

And yet Huntsman’s point was compelling. We do not have a problem with Afghanistan as such, he pointed out. We have a serious problem with radical extremists who use terror tactics against all their targets, and we happen to be the main one. If this is so, in Afghanistan (as well as elsewhere), America should have a counter terror strategy (a maximum force of 10,000 or 15,000 in theatre) and not a counter insurgency strategy that requires the 100,000 troops or more deployed there.

In other words, Huntsman argues, we are using a vast military force in Afghanistan because we lost sight of the initial goal: going after al Qaeda, its bases and its networks. The initial mission was not to make Afghanistan, a horrendously poor and backward state, into a modern democracy. The mission was to pursue radical Islamists who use terrorism. And this “sanctuary denial” goal does not require a large occupation force. It requires smaller numbers of highly trained special operations professionals. Having changed our mission, today Afghanistan costs a small fortune on a daily basis, and we are going nowhere with this fantasy land approach aimed at reforming the country.

Sensible policies not wanted, we are tough

But Huntsman’s well founded criticism did not go anywhere. (And the CNN moderator did not take the opportunity to ask all candidates what they believe to be the objective of a war that has been going on for 10 years). On TV the Republicans have to be tough. And during a televised debate they have to say that we need more troops and win the war, even if it is the wrong war –and a non winnable war at that. God forbid they may even appear to be vacillating on defense.

Nothing about troubled Iraq

In the meantime, as in these silly debates they are only asked about what is in the news, (in order to keep the TV audience interested), no questions about what is happening in Iraq, while America is just about gone. (The final withdrawal of US troops is underway).

Credible experts, among them Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, warn that the Iraq we are leaving is a huge mess and getting worse, as he stated in a recent congressional testimony. According to his contacts in Baghdad, “ it feels like 2005″, the year of the explosion of sectarian violence. The general sense is that the al Maliki government in Baghdad is weak and hopelessly divided. Sectarian forces are on the rise. There is no sense of national unity and no way to properly govern. In other words, just as the last remnants of US forces are packing, the situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

Now, this should worry a future Republican president. After all the efforts, (that started in March of 2003), after all the losses and the incredible cost, are we leaving a country that may precipitate into chaos? Wouldn’t this be something to talk about? No, not really, because no Americans are getting killed there these days. The country, daily bombings notwithstanding, is still holding together and therefore we are fine.

Bombast, no analysis

So, this is the picture. This is what a debate on national security involving people who want us to believe that they have what it takes to be the next Commander in Chief is about. Sound bites, and bombast. No analysis. We hear plenty about militarizing the border with Mexico, truly a heap of nonsense, and nothing about what America would do should Iraq fall apart after we are gone, a distinct possibility.

By the same token, Jon Huntsman, the only candidate who talked intelligently about making our mission in Afghanistan what it what supposed to be, namely a counter terror campaign, therefore adjusting our force level and composition to properly fit the task is castigated as a “cut and run”, “weak on defense” would-be president. When you run for president you want lots of troops, even if the mission as defined is stupid, because this is the only way to appear “tough on defense”.

America deserves better

This is what “sound bite only” TV debates in which there is no time and no real interest to go deeply into anything are all about. America really deserves better than this silly auditioning process to select the new president. This “method” is sadly tailored only to impress TV audiences with a clever punch line, and not to inform about policy choices.

TV politics is now just another form of entertainment.

And this is how we go about choosing the next president?

TransCanada Keystone Pipeline Project Killed By Obama – Decision Taken To Please Environmentalists Hurts US Energy Security – Getting More Oil From Friendly Canada Would Be Smart Policy

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

Related story:


November 12, 2011

WASHINGTON – Well, apparently there are ”good” and “bad” shovel ready major infrastructure projects. The Obama administration has been loudly preaching the need to spend federal money now in order to put unemployed Americans to work, while rebuilding or building US infrastructure, so that America will become more efficient and more competitive internationally. But somehow the White House does not think that the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline that would bring substantially larger amounts of Canadian oil from Alberta down to Texas refineries is sound infrastructure. Forget that it would create thousands of construction jobs, while providing business opportunities to many US vendors and suppliers. Forget that it would get vital oil supplies into the US originating from a stable and reliable neighbor. This infrastructure project will not be done; at least not before the 2012 elections. And this is because the environmentalists are against it.

Political decision

Indeed, after years of studies, reviews, delays and excuses, finally the US State Department, (the federal agency that has jurisdiction over an international project such as this one), decided to have –you guessed it– more studies and more reviews of the potential environmental impact and risks associated with this new pipeline, essentially guaranteeing that no decision will be taken before the November 2012 presidential elections. I had indicated in a previous piece on this issue, (see link above), that domestic politics worries, rather than energy security concerns, would have determined a “no” decision. And this is exactly what happened.

While it is politically understandable that president Obama does not want to upset the environmentalists in his Democratic Party base by authorizing a project that they abhor, on account of their fears about ruptures and oil spills, (especially in the pipeline section that would run through Nebraska, because of an important aquifer in that state), this is a really dumb decision that shows zero interest in a golden opportunity to substantially increase US energy security by getting more of the oil we need to import from Canada, a stable and friendly neighbor, as opposed to getting it from unstable and unfriendly countries in the Middle East and Africa or from Venezuela.

US needs to import oil

May be we need to restate the obvious. Until we get to a new era of electric vehicles, (or something equivalent), that will require no gasoline, the US will continue to rely on imported oil to fuel millions of cars and trucks, not to mention oil based jet fuel for civilian and military airplanes. True enough, thanks to improved technologies, these days the US is producing more oil. And this is great news. Still, even with increased domestic output, (North Dakota producing over 400,00 barrels a day is a stunning example of new production), America needs to import more than half of what it consumes.

Oil from faraway countries creates supply vulnerabilities

And this creates a variety of problems. The first one affects our balance of payments. At around 90 dollars a barrel, oil is a very expensive commodity. Money to buy millions of barrels of oil leaves America every day. And this is a major, continuous hemorrage. The second one concerns our national security. Our dependence on supplies coming from distant sources in the Persian Gulf, Nigeria or nearer countries, such as unfriendly Venezuela, is a major problem. Dependence on far away and often unstable suppliers puts America at risk. It is not by accident that the US, at considerable cost, keeps the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf . The US Navy is there to safeguard our oil supplies. Add a share of the cost of this ongoing patrolling operation to every gallon of gasoline Americans put in their tanks.

It would be smart to import more oil from nearby Canada

For these reasons, and since the US cannot become energy self-sufficient within a short period of time, it would make sense to get more of the oil we need from friendly and reliable producers –and there is no better one than Canada. As we need to get imported oil, on balance better to depend on Canada than on Saudi Arabia or Angola. Indeed, regarding Canada we have the advantage of geographic proximity and a long history of friendly relations. From the standpoint of secure energy supplies, short of major disasters, the likelihood that Canadian oil flows to the US will be disrupted is really small. No need for a 5th Fleet equivalent at our border with Canada. Whereas the likelihood of conflicts in the Persian Gulf that may stop our supplies is significant.

Besides, as we have to pay for imported oil anyway, better to see our money benefiting a friendly neighbor rather than going to countries that are not fast friends. For all these reasons, the Keystone XL pipeline should have been a high US energy and foreign policy priority, in fact an urgent project. More broadly, authorizing its construction would have also signaled the world that America is seriously looking at its energy vulnerabilities and that it is working to find ways to diminish them.

All in all, more Canadian oil coming into the US would not be a final solution to our energy security problem; but it would be a significant improvement. Every additional million barrel that we get from Canada is a million barrel that we stop importing from the Persian Gulf.

Obama worried about re-election, not energy security for America

But none of this mattered in the US decision to postpone action until after the 2012 elections. The Obama administration looked at the pipeline only as a domestic political problem. ”Would an action taken in the American national interest cost us precious votes in the upcoming November 2012 elections?” Given the vocal opposition on the part of the environmentalist, a key Democratic Party constituency, Obama concluded that approving the project would have been politically damaging, and so he removed it from the agenda. A politically smart but strategically dumb decision.

While the damage caused by something truly important that will not be done is neither immediately visible nor easily quantifiable, this politically motivated decision not to get more oil from Canada hurts the long term energy security of the United States. This is bad policy and really bad leadership.

Herman Cain Still The GOP Favorite – Republican Base Craving A Fresh Face – Yet He Is Awfully Short On Details – Do We Want A Conservative Amateur In The White House?

[the-subtitle ]

By Paolo von Schirach

November 4, 2011

WASHINGTON – Herman Cain, the retired Godfather pizza entrepreneur now running for the Republican Party 2012 nomination, is very popular with the party “base” because he is a genuine straight shooter. He’s a hard core conservative and he’s got solid principles: low taxes and less government, while he favors a “strong” US foreign policy. Speaking to an audience in Washington, Cain walked to the podium used also by other Republican candidates and, after having disdainfully looked at a teleprompter, made a point to declare that the contraption from which one can read a text was not for him. No, sir. Cain is not scripted. He does not come and talk to good Americans reciting a prepackaged speech prepared by advisers. Cain speaks from the heart, and he’ll tell it to you like it is.

Republican base does not like professional politicians

Fine. There is ample ground for being suspicious of the Washington insiders, the professional politicians who curry favors and who’ll tell any audience anything, just to get their votes. And how about the other pros who will hide behind complicated jargon and ambiguous language, so that they can cover all the bases, trying to skillfully navigate to the nomination without offending anybody? And there is also legitimate skepticism against the super experts who come in, with a touch of academic arrogance, promising clever solutions and then falling flat on their faces, because their 15 parts programs turn out to be wrong.

Enter Herman Cain, the outsider

Because of all this, Herman Cain the ‘non politician” is a refreshing new comer. Still, is it really alright for a person aspiring to be president of the United States to be blissfully ignorant about the intricacies of policy? Is it really enough to have –so he claims– just good instincts about a couple of key policies, leaving the rest to the hired hands? This is awfully close to flying blind.

Remember Ross Perot?

No, America, it is not enough. And, by the way, not being a professional politician is no guarantee of wisdom. There are biased ideologues and many other narcissists who never run for public office in an earlier life. Remember Ross Perot in 1992? For quite a while he was a national sensation. Riding the otherwise legitimate issue of the federal budget deficit, he run as a third party candidate in 1992. He got enough Republican votes to wound the incumbent George Bush senior and help Bill Clinton get elected. But then Perot faded, never to be heard from again.

And yet, just like Cain, he was a successful businessman and he exuded the same folksy appeal –heavy Texas accent and all. He would tell you things the Washington crowd would not tell you, America. He would level with you, and he would come up with no nonsense solutions that would displease the special interests, but would delight The People. Like Cain, he had big ideas; but he was short on details.

Herman Cain, just like Ross Perot

Well, Herman Cain belongs to the same school. He is not a billionaire like Perot; but he has the ever revered credentials of the self-made man who did well and ended up running a sizable business. Still, can he seriously run for president merely on the strength of his conservative convictions and a platform consisting of just a couple of concrete policy recommendations?

We know about his flat tax proposal, the “9-9-9″- mantra. Will it work, as presented? Who knows? But it has the appeal of bumper sticker politics. Simple, easy to remember. (And why should it be any worse –many would argue– than the ultra complicated US tax code, with its thousands of pages, and thousands of special interests treated favorably because of their political clout?) Cain promises to come in and clean house. And his audiences cheer.

Self assurance or just biased arrogance?

As I said, fresh air does not hurt. But Cain self-assurance, with no details, is mostly the arrogance of the man who has figured everything out and does not need to do more home work. And this is border line dangerous. Having principles is one thing. Having biases presented as principles and not much else is a serious problem.

Knowing a lot of details about issues is certainly no guarantee of being able to make wise policy choices about where to take the country. (The evidence is in the fact that policy experts vehemently disagree about direction. At least some of them, with all their knowledge, must be wrong). But knowing little, and being sort of proud about ignorance, as if details do not matter, is a bad sign.

Republicans want a fresh face

The Republicans are entitled to demand a fresh leader, not tainted by Washington. But they could also ask for someone who actually understands that America’s problem are enormously complex and systemic in nature. Quite simply, bumper sticker policy solutions may be a crowd pleaser, because people crave straight answers; but the actual policy world is really complicated.

Cain is a conservative ideologue

And I am not sure that Herman Cain gets this. He gives the impression that he’s already got all the answers. His superior judgement, grounded on his strong conservative principles, gives him the tools to deal with everything. Well, this approach may sell with Republican primary voters, at least for now, but it does not work. We have now an amateur president, (zero, repeat zero, executive experience for Barack Obama prior to 2008), with a left wing bias. A conservative amateur is not gong to be any better.