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“A Foreign-Policy Party No More”: On Foreign Policy, The GOP’s Candidates For President Are Either Ignorant Or Insane

Fairly early on in this week’s Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz was reminded about his recent quote in which he vowed to “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion,” testing whether “sand can glow in the dark.” Asked whether he’s prepared to decimate a populated city like Raqqa, informally known as the ISIS capital in Syria, the Texas senator hedged.

“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” Cruz said, adding, “[T]he object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.”

This plainly didn’t make any sense. It’s as if Cruz referenced carpet bombing – indiscriminate bombing of large areas, without regard for collateral damage – without having any idea what it means. To hear the Texas Republican tell it, there’s such a thing as precision, “directed” carpet bombing, which is a contradiction in terms.

The gibberish, however, was par for the course. Writing in the Washington Post, Dan Drezner, a center-right scholar, said yesterday, “When it comes to foreign policy, the GOP’s candidates for president in 2016 are either ignorant or insane.”

The overwhelming bulk of what the GOP candidates had to say last night was pure, unadulterated horses***. […]

When I came of political age, the Republican Party had a surfeit of smart, tough-minded foreign policy folk: Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, James Baker, Bob Zoellick, Richard Haass, and Lawrence Eagleburger. I pity these people having to listen to what was said on the GOP main stage last night.

Keep in mind, this isn’t so much about subjective questions. Knowing what we know now, was the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a good idea or a bad idea? Marco Rubio says it was a good idea; most people who’ve been conscious for the last 12 years say the opposite; and it can be a topic of spirited conversation.

When a center-right observer like Drezner talks about Republican presidential candidates being “either ignorant or insane,” he’s not referring to debatable judgment calls. He’s referring to an entire field of GOP candidates who at times seemed lost as to what foreign policies actually are.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan noted the debate was “devoted to national security and terrorism, about which most of the nine major candidates proved they knew nothing, a fact that some tried to conceal by making stuff up.”

How did the party that used to dominate on foreign policy fall to such cringe-worthy depths?

Part of the problem is likely the result of the demise of the Republican Party’s elder statesmen. In the not-too-distant past, the GOP was guided on foreign policy by responsible, learned hands – experienced officials like Dick Lugar, John Warner, and Brent Scowcroft – who approached international affairs with degree of maturity. Those Republicans now tend to agree with President Obama.

Which leads to another potential explanation: the more Obama represents some kind of “sensible center” on matters of foreign policy, the more his radicalized Republican critics feel the need to move even further to the right.

I also wouldn’t discount the role of post-policy thinking of the broader debate: the national GOP candidates are speaking to (and for) a party that has no patience for substantive details, historical lessons, nuance, or diplomacy. Heck, we’re talking about a party that has convinced itself that the key to defeating terrorists is literally using the phrase “radical Islam,” as if the words have magical national-security implications. That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s emblematic of a party that approaches foreign policy itself with all the maturity of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Finally, some context is probably in order. At the end of the Bush/Cheney era, the GOP’s entire approach to international affairs was discredited and in tatters. It needed to be rebuilt, reconsidered, and molded anew into something coherent. That never happened – the intra-party debate never really occurred, except to the extent that Republicans agreed that Obama is always wrong, even when he’s right, and those who agree with him must always be rejected, even when they’re Republicans in good standing.

Taken together, there’s something genuinely pathetic about the Republican Party’s once-great credibility on these issues. As Rachel put it on the show last night, “We really need two parties who are good at this issue in order to have good policy on this issue. We need good debate because this stuff is hard and our best decisions will come out of good, robust debate. Can the Republican Party hold up its end of the debate?”

It’s hard to be optimistic, isn’t it?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 17, 2015

December 21, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, GOP Presidential Candidates, Middle East, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Forever Active Or Proxy Warfare”: Republican Lies And Distortions About The Middle East

One of the reasons it is difficult to comment on the actual content of what the Republican presidential candidates said last night is that so much of it was simply untrue. By the time you are done fact-checking, there isn’t much there there.

The debate produced a lot of material for the fact-checkers to work with. But most troubling, given the topic they were focused on, was the complete lack of understanding and/or truthfulness about what is actually going on in the Middle East. A perfect example of that was the claim from Ted Cruz that the Obama administration “toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.” One can only assume that Cruz is ignorant of the whole “Arab Spring” rebellions of 2010/11 and the fact that it was the people of Egypt who forced him to step down.

For a more comprehensive review, Ishaan Tharoor has written: The Middle East dreamed up at the Republican debate doesn’t really exist. He begins by talking about Cruz’s proposal to “carpet bomb” ISIS.

Cruz’s emphasis is on tough, withering, relentless action, but you can’t bomb the Islamic State to smithereens without contemplating an enormous civilian death toll. That places Cruz in the same camp as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has for years now been bombing civilian areas in his own nation’s cities with barrel bombs and other crude, indiscriminate forms of munitions…

Cruz and, to varying extents, other candidates onstage appeared to view the Middle East as a kind of set for “American Sniper” — a woebegone place of dusty towns crawling with bad guy extremists and not much else.

It wouldn’t be the first time a Republican confused the real world with the movie version.

Tharoor goes on to talk about Carson’s proposal to move Syrian refugees to the Hasakah governorate in northeast Syria, which “is still a theater of war and the site of bitter clashes between Kurdish militias and the Islamic State,” as well as the complex realities of working with various Kurdish parties and militias. But then he got to what I noticed in the proposals we heard last night from Kasich, Rubio and Christie.

But none of this was being deliberated in Las Vegas, of course.

Instead, there was a vague embrace of Sunni Arab elites — namely the ruling royals of countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia — and a parallel demonization of Iran, a regional bogeyman on the other side of a sectarian divide with the Saudis.

The truth is that the neocons in the Republican Party want the United States to take sides in the centuries-old battle between the Shia and the Sunnis in the Middle East. Specifically, they want us to take the side of the Sunni majorities in countries like Saudi Arabia against the Shiites in Iran. That means aligning with the country whose oil wealth has been used to support groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Here is how Kasich put it last night:

Assad is aligned with Iran and Russia. The one thing we want to prevent is we want to prevent Iran being able to extend a Shia crescent all across the Middle East. Assad has got to go…

I don’t want to be policeman of the world. But we can’t back off of this. And let me tell you, at the end, the Saudis have agreed to put together a coalition inside of Syria to stabilize that country.

He must go. It will be a blow to Iran and Russia.

In the Republican mind, we have friends and we have enemies. Saudi Arabia – which has one of the worst human rights records in the world – is a “friend.” Russia and Iran are “enemies.”

That is exactly why Republicans are so vehemently opposed the the deal that was recently negotiated with Iran to stop their development of nuclear weapons. As President Obama told David Remnick prior to the conclusion of those negotiations, it sets the stage for a potential geopolitical realignment in the Middle East.

Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.

For all their bluster about the President being weak and ineffective, this is the real reason Republicans oppose his strategy in the Middle East. They can’t conceptualize peace in the Middle East short of a military solution that provides a win for our friends and defeat of our enemies. In other words…forever active or proxy warfare.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 15, 2015

December 20, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Middle East, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Most Simplistic And Mindless Solutions Imaginable”: Breaking; GOP Candidates Admit American Military Force Has Its Limits

Amid the competition in last night’s debate to see which candidate could make Americans more terrified that we’re all going to be killed by terrorists any day now, an actual substantive policy difference emerged on national security. While none of the candidates took positions they hadn’t taken before, it was the clearest explication of what actually is a real division within the Republican Party on foreign policy.

Though we sometimes think of the GOP as divided between Rand Paul on one side and everybody else on the other — one lone candidate skeptical of foreign interventionism up against a bunch of unreconstructed hawks — the truth is more complicated. And as we saw last night, the candidates currently in first place (Donald Trump) and second place (Ted Cruz) in the race represent a foreign policy vision that acknowledges that American power has its limits. That’s a stark contrast with their opponents, who essentially believe in George W. Bush’s vision, which says that American military power can solve nearly any problem and plant the seeds of democracy anywhere.

There are reasons not to give too much credit to Cruz and Trump, which I’ll get to in a moment. But their beliefs on the fundamental question of the limits of American power, particularly in the Middle East, were clearly laid out last night. Here’s part of what Cruz had to say:

So let’s go back to the beginning of the Obama administration, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama led NATO in toppling the government in Libya. They did it because they wanted to promote democracy. A number of Republicans supported them. The result of that — and we were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over. Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.

Move over to Egypt. Once again, the Obama administration, encouraged by Republicans, toppled Mubarak who had been a reliable ally of the United States, of Israel, and in its place, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came in, a terrorist organization.

And we need to learn from history. These same leaders — Obama, Clinton, and far too many Republicans — want to topple Assad. Assad is a bad man. Gadhafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us — at least Gadhafi and Mubarak — in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.

And if we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests. And the approach, instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter, we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.

We didn’t actually topple Mubarak and we didn’t exactly topple Gadhafi, but in any case, Cruz is articulating a realist foreign policy vision here: We should focus on direct threats to American national security and not try to impose democracy, because overthrowing dictators creates volatile situations in which the outcome can be even worse than what came before. This is a direct contradiction to George W. Bush’s expansive vision in which the right invasion or two would spread democracy across the Middle East in a glorious flowering of freedom. (And yes, we should acknowledge that this vision was always selective — nobody proposed overthrowing the government of Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive dictatorships on earth).

After Cruz’s statement, Marco Rubio and John Kasich chimed in to argue that we actually should overthrow Assad, then Donald Trump came back with a statement that could have come from Bernie Sanders:

In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.

We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.

It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.

The typical telling of the Iraq story Republicans offer is that everything was going great until Barack Obama came in and screwed it all up. But here, Trump isn’t even bothering with that — he’s saying that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a bad idea from the start and had all kinds of negative unintended consequences.

It’s important to understand that Trump and Cruz aren’t doves. In fact, they have wedded this skepticism toward nation-building with the most belligerent attitude toward the Islamic State. Trump says he wants to “bomb the s— out of them,” while Cruz proposes to “carpet-bomb” them. So on the one hand they have a broader approach that seems grounded in history, while on the other they’re offering the most simplistic (you might even say mindless) solution imaginable to the immediate problem of the Islamic State.

For many of the other candidates, it’s precisely the reverse. Against all evidence, they still talk as though American power is essentially limitless and there are no unintended consequences we need to concern ourselves with when we do something like inject ourselves into a civil war in the Middle East. Yet on the Islamic State, they try to sound like they have a nuanced plan that’s built on an understanding of the complexities of the situation. Marco Rubio’s Islamic State plan might be wrong in all its particulars, but at least it has particulars, meant to demonstrate that he knows what he’s talking about. (You may have noticed that Rubio spends a lot of time trying to demonstrate that he knows what he’s talking about.) The same could be said of Jeb Bush.

As last night’s fear-fest made clear, the candidates know that their electorate is on edge and looking for a strong leader who will make them feel like the threats they perceive around them are being confronted. Trump and Cruz are offering instant gratification in the form of a glorious bombing campaign against the Islamic State, combined with a more careful approach over the longer term that would seek to avoid quagmires in places where, as Cruz likes to say about Syria, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” The question is whether that’s appealing to a significant portion of the Republican electorate. We don’t yet know the answer, but eventually we’ll find out.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, December 16, 2015

December 18, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Terrorism, U. S. Military | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Let’s Talk Specifics”: Seven Things That Show The GOP Candidates Are Clueless About The Islamic State

As everyone knows, when it comes to fighting the Islamic State, Barack Obama is a weak and feckless president who has no strategy to defeat this terrifying enemy. The Republicans running to replace him, on the other hand, are ready to go with their strong and decisive strategies — just put one of them in office and let him implement his strategy, and this whole thing will be mopped up forthwith.

That’s what they say, of course. But the truth is that they have no clue what to do about this problem. To a degree, you can’t blame them — if there was an easy solution, the administration certainly would have been more than happy to use it. The trouble is that there are nothing but bad options. But presidential candidates aren’t supposed to express caution and concern about unintended consequences. They have to be confident and strong, assuring voters that there’s no problem they can’t solve.

But if you want to know how to spot a candidate who has no idea what to do about the Islamic State, a good place to start is this interview with Ted Cruz by Molly O’Toole of Defense One. O’Toole does exactly what I’m constantly begging reporters to do — not accuse the candidate of being a hypocrite or asking him to criticize his opponents, but demand specificity. That’s how we learn whether he’s just blowing smoke. Unfortunately, Cruz is a champion smoke-blower, and he evades most of her questions until they get too uncomfortable, at which point he literally shuts a door in her face (an elevator door, in this case).

In the course of this brief interview, Cruz hits on most of the key tells that make clear Republicans have no more of a strategy for the Islamic State than anybody else. Here’s a list of things to watch out for when candidates are talking about their “strategies”:

  1. We need a leader who leads, with leadership. This idea is expressed in various ways; in this case, Cruz starts explaining how he’d fight the Islamic State by saying that “We didn’t win the Cold War until we had a president who stood up and led…” Another way of putting it is, as Marco Rubio and others have said, that Obama lacks the proper “sense of urgency” about the problem. But that’s not a strategy, it’s a feeling. Saying “I’ll feel differently than Obama does when I’m in the Oval Office” doesn’t tell us anything about what a candidate would actually do.
  2. Bomb the hell out of them. This sounds strong and resolute, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’ve been bombing pretty much every target we can find. According to the Air Force, as of the end of November we had dropped 31,873 bombs and missiles in this operation. It’s true that the military has taken care not to kill significant numbers of civilians, which is a challenge because the Islamic State controls a number of cities. In theory we could just “carpet-bomb” those cities, as Cruz proposes (he says “carpet-bomb ISIS,” but when it’s pointed out to him that they’re located in cities, he evades the question of whether he actually wants to carpet-bomb cities), but that would be extraordinarily counter-productive, not to mention morally abominable and probably a war crime. And yes, despite what Republicans would have you believe, we are bombing their oil facilities. So “Bomb them, but, you know, more” isn’t a strategy either.
  3. Arm the Kurds. This sounds like a good idea — the Kurds are our allies, and they’ve been extremely successful in fighting the Islamic State where they have chosen to do so. The problem (other than the fact that our ally Turkey is deeply opposed to anything that would strengthen them) is that the Kurds have their own agenda in Iraq and Syria, one that isn’t exactly the same as ours. They’ll happily fight to take control of Kurdish areas, but they aren’t interested in becoming an occupying army in Arab areas. You can make a case that arming the Kurds is a good thing, despite Turkey’s objections. But giving them more arms isn’t going to rout the Islamic State out of most of the places where it exists.
  4. Get somebody else’s boots on the ground. With the partial exception of Lindsey Graham, all the Republican candidates acknowledge to one degree or another that an American invasion is going to cause more trouble than it’s worth. So the answer many offer is to assemble an army of boots from our coalition partners, preferably Sunni Arabs, who can go in there and occupy the area without generating so much resistance and resentment from the local population. And how will they convince countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that have been unwilling so far to contribute those troops to do so? Well…they just will. With strength and resolve, I guess. If they can’t say why those countries will be willing to do a year from now what they’re unwilling to do today, they’re expressing a fantasy, not a plan.
  5. A no-fly zone. There are reasonable arguments for and against establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. But it has nothing to do with the Islamic State, which doesn’t have an air force. If you want to argue that a no-fly zone is necessary to stop Bashar al-Assad from bombing civilians, that’s fine. But you can’t pretend it does something to hasten the Islamic State’s demise.
  6. Do whatever is necessary. This is a clear tell that the candidate has run out of ideas, but just wants to communicate toughness and resolve. Ted Cruz says this a lot. It’s a way of saying you’ll do something without actually saying what you’ll do. And of course…
  7. Call it “Radical Islamic Terrorism.” This magical incantation, once uttered by the commander in chief, is supposed to bring us to the very brink of victory. But how? Here’s a question I’d like to hear a Republican candidate answer. Let’s say that tomorrow, President Obama said, “You know what? My critics are right. We are facing Radical Islamic Terrorism.” What would change?

The answer is: nothing. And if someone is arguing that the most important thing we need to do in order to accomplish a goal is something that will do nothing to accomplish that goal, it’s a good sign that they don’t have any actual ideas.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, December 11, 2015

December 15, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, ISIS, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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