Before turning on the Republican debate on Wednesday night, I had begun writing an article on Hillary Clinton's alarmingly bellicose foreign policy ideas. But Hillary's hawkish stance is a portrait of restraint in contrast to the adolescent muscle flexing and locker room taunts that mark the foreign policy exchanges of the Republican presidential contenders in their most recent debate.
The competitive bluster got so fierce that Donald "I am the most militaristic person" Trump turned out to be one of the least unhinged in the claque. After 14 years of costly, destabilizing war in the Middle East, these candidates pledge, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Those with the least standing in the polls tended to be the most extreme in their rhetoric. Sen. Ted Cruz would tear up the Iran agreement on his first day in office. TV talk host Mike Huckabee hyperventilated over ISIS as an "existential threat" to the U.S. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker continued to suggest that smashing unions in his state showed he was ready to take on ISIS. Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Trump and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dared summon a few words of caution about the folly of the Iraq war, the need to work with allies, or acknowledge some limit on U.S. power.
Pundits hailed Carly Fiorina, the fired CEO and failed Senate candidate, as a clear winner in the debate, relishing her putdown of Donald Trump and her forceful foreign policy statements. But Fiorina showed only that she had mastered her blustery neoconservative briefing points, however untethered from reality.
For Fiorina, America must police the world. She scorned talking with Putin at all. "We need the strongest military on the face of the planet and everyone has to know what that means." She'd rather flex our military muscles - add to the Sixth fleet, rebuild missile defense programs in Poland, send more troops to Europe, do "aggressive military exercises" on the Russian border, modernize every part of our nuclear arsenal, and arm everyone who asks from Jordan to the Kurds. "Vladimir Putin would get the message."
As Ezra Klein noted, this sounds good, but ignores that most of this Obama is already doing, and the rest makes no sense. America already has the strongest military in the world - and Trump is right, our allies are increasingly free riders, happy to let us do all the fighting. And everyone does know "what that means," which is one reason why regimes in our cross hairs like Iran might want to seek a nuclear weapon. Paul noted that even at the height of the Cold War, Reagan negotiated with Soviet leaders. Fiorina didn't indicate what she thought Putin would do when he got "the message." The assumption is that if we swagger enough, he'll just stand down and obey. Lots of luck with that.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was praised for displaying his foreign policy "expertise" in the debate, even as he served up a ludicrous muddle of hysteria, bellicosity and posturing. For Rubio, the world is now much more dangerous than it was in the Cold War when the U.S. actually faced a global rival armed with nuclear weapons. Now there is a "lunatic" in North Korea with nuclear weapons, the Chinese are expanding their military, a "gangster in Moscow" threatens to "destroy and divide NATO" and a "radical Shia cleric with apocalyptic vision" "guaranteed to possess nuclear weapons."
Negotiations are merely a sign of weakness. Allowing countries on the other side of the world to deal with their own problems only represents "withdrawal" that creates "vacuums" that terrorists will fill. "The belief that somehow by retreating, America makes the world safer has been disproven every single time it's ever been tried," Rubio said. That staying out of other people's troubles might make America safer is not even up for consideration.
The only answer is more - more weapons, more interventions, more wars. The U.S. must stand guard everywhere from Korea to the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf across Africa to South America.
Rubio, of course, supported the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya - as did most of the candidates on the stage, excepting Trump, Paul and Ben Carson. None could conceive of the notion that American intervention - not retreat - created the chaos that led to ISIS and destabilized the region. When Carson suggested that military intervention is not always the right answer, that its important to think through alternatives, Rubio was having none of it:
"But radical terrorism cannot be solved by intellect. It cannot - they require - what they need, is they need an operating space. That's what Afghanistan was for Al Qaeda. It was a vacuum that they filled, and they created an operating space....That's why they had to be destroyed. It is the reason why ISIS has grown as well. We allowed them - we allowed a vacuum to emerge in Syria. They used it as an operating space to grow; and today they're not just in Iraq and Syria anymore, they're now in Libya, conducting operations in the Sinai. They're now in Afghanistan, trying to supplant the Taliban as the most powerful radical jihadist group on the ground there, as well. You cannot allow radical jihadists to have an operating safe haven anywhere in the world."
But it was the U.S. that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, creating the instability and feeding the sectarian conflicts. It was U.S. allies like the Saudi Arabians that funded much of the terror. Trump suggested that if Assad and ISIS wanted to fight each other, the U.S. might be wise to let them do so and "pick up the remnants." Rubio would have none of that.
If you want a president to lead us into constant wars "anywhere in the world," Republicans have your man.
America, of course, must lead this effort. Republicans disagree about how many troops are needed, or whether we can simply train and arm our surrogates while raining bombs from drones across various regions.
But when it comes to climate change, American leadership is useless. According to Rubio, we should not take any steps to lead the transition to renewable energy because we aren't going to "make America a harder place to create jobs" in order to pursue policies that will do nothing, "absolutely nothing" to change our climate. "America is a lot of things...but America is not a planet." So we shouldn't push on climate change, because that requires global cooperation. We do wars. On our own. Diplomacy, leading by example to engage others, dialogue - surely that is for others to worry about.
There is a dangerous vacuum on foreign policy - a vacuum caused by the withdrawal of common sense and prudence, and filled with unhinged bluster and blind belief in the military. Listening to Republicans, one can only shudder at the fate of our country.