Republican TV Debates About National Security Are Just Silly Posturing – Huntsman Is The Only Sensible Candidate Big words about bombing Iran and militarizing the border with Mexico. But nothing about the US end game in Afghanistan or the threat of an unstable Iraq. Sound bite TV political debates are a poor way to have a national conversation


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?

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