In the Arena

21 Days Till Iowa: Watching the Lincoln-Douglas Debacle

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Silly me. I’d been hoping for a real, substantive debate on foreign policy issues between Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich on Monday. The format was capacious; there were no silly gotcha questions–just mutually agreed upon topics for discussion. It was similar to the way Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the most profound topic in the history of the republic, slavery, in 1[8]58. But what we got instead was a sham, a 90-minute joint press conference. What we got was, with certain admirable exceptions, the appearance of substance. And, more often than not when Gingrich was speaking, what we got was dangerous nonsense passed off as considered thought.

A waste of time? No. We learned a lot about Gingrich’s depth of knowledge on foreign policy. It is kiddie-pool deep.

Gingrich’s substantive deficiency was obvious from the very first topic–Afghanistan and Pakistan. Huntsman led off with a disciplined, and somewhat controversial (in Republican circles), description of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. He said it was time to bring the bulk of U.S. troops home, that the mission should now shift toward counter-terrorism, intelligence gathering and training the Afghan National Army. This is essentially the policy shift that Barack Obama has made in the last year–and a position that Gingrich could easily have challenged.

But Gingrich made no coherent response. Instead, he offered a series of anecdotes and sound bites that had little to do with the specific policy choices we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but were meant to make the larger point that, unlike the Cold War, we don’t have a clear strategy for dealing with the Islamic world. He began with an anecdote from an Algerian academic about the complexity of the Third World, with Four Seasons Hotels located next to desperate slums in many cities. This was banality posing as profundity, cloaked in a wreath of recondite academicism–an Algerian expert, no less!

From there, Gingrich descended from the obvious to the irrelevant to the outrageous. He pointed out that the Pakistani military had to have known that Osama Bin Laden was living in the vicinity of its national defense university. True enough. He noted that the number of Christians in Iraq had declined from 1.2 million to 500,000. And therefore what? And then he said, of the Iranians, that any society that “would recruit children to be suicide bombers would use nuclear weapons in a heartbeat.”

Where to begin. Well, first of all, as poisonous and brutal as the Iranian regime is, I can’t recall an instance of Iranian children being used as suicide bombers. (That’s almost exclusively a Salafist Sunni thing.) Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of experts on Iran–even Iranian dissidents who’d like to see the government overthrown–believe the Iranians are developing a weapon for use as a deterrent against the Israeli and Pakistani arsenals. No one–and I mean no one–who has ever been to Iran thinks that the government would invite the incineration that would attend a first-strike attack against Israel.

Yes, the Iranian regime is dastardly. Yes, it is extreme. But it is not crazy–and it has had the recent experience of 1 million casualties during the 1980s war with Iraq to keep it sober. In a subsequent answer, Gingrich acknowledged that it was probably impossible to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, much of which is located underground. So what do we do? Push for regime change. How? He didn’t say. This is bloviation passing for bellicosity, an empty threat. (The actual answer to the question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program is the same as it was during the Cold War: containment and deterrence.)

Huntsman’s response was one of his few foolish moments. It was also craven. He didn’t say, “Wait a minute, Newt, why would the Iranians bring on the utter destruction of their own country? What evidence do you have that they would use nukes? What examples can you give of the regime behaving–rather than just talking–recklessly in the international sphere since the end of the Iran-Iraq war?”

Huntsman did say that we had missed an opportunity to take advantage of the “Persian Spring” after the stolen election of 2009, but this was silly, too. It ┬ápresumed that the Green movement would have sided with the U.S. against its own government. And it ignored the hard lessons we are learning now about the vagaries of people-power movements in that part of the world. (And it ignores the fact that the leaders of the Green Movement are very much in favor of the Iranian nuclear program.)

In fact, as Huntsman well knows, if Barack Obama had encouraged a revolution in Iran in 2009, he would have had the effect of (a) destroying the credibility of the Green movement and (b) getting a lot more people killed.

A few questions later, Huntsman gave the most detailed, sophisticated answer to a foreign policy question that I’ve seen this in this campaign–on China, his specialty–and even Gingrich acknowledged he had “learned something” from it. And so did I: Huntsman talked about the generation coming to power in China, which had only known the economic boom, and hadn’t experienced the horrors of the cultural revolution or Great Leap Forward. He posited that this new “5th” generation would be less humble, and more tricky to deal with, than its predecessors.

This was impressive, but also depressing. It demonstrated the value of having a real substantive policy conversation, but also Huntsman’s unwillingness to risk such a conversation when Gingrich indulged in his bellicose baloney-slicing on Iran.

For his part, Gingrich gave further evidence as to how dangerous a President he would be–a President willing to shed dignity and authority in order to play at saber-rattling. A President who deludes himself by thinking that the selective accumulation of anecdotes constitutes knowledge, who passes off sound bites as strategy.