Saturday Night Frights

Saturday’s GOP presidential debate focused on foreign policy, and it was a disgrace — not simply because of the moderators’ blatant disregard for Rep. Ron Paul (the only candidate from either political party advocating peace was given 89 seconds to speak in the first hour), and not simply because of the hideous lagging in the webcast of the debate’s final hour. It was a disgrace because of the GOP candidates themselves.

When asked if they would support military action against Iran, several candidates proudly asserted that they would. However, they advocated the use of even more disturbing means to end Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions.

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry called for stronger sanctions against Iran, while keeping military action available as a last resort. Newt Gingrich argued for “maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable.” 

Rick Santorum agreed, saying, “You know there have been scientists turning up dead in Russia and Iran, there have been computer viruses, there have been problems at their facility.” Speaking of those attacks, he added: “I hope that the U.S. has been involved.”

Santorum referred to several recent events in Iran. As Businessweek reported:

An Iranian scientist working in the nation’s nuclear program was assassinated in Tehran on July 23, the state-run Mehr news agency reported, citing local police.

Dariush Rezaei was killed and his wife was injured when assailants riding motorcycles opened fire in front of his home in the capital, the agency said. Rezaei, a university professor, had a degree in neutron physics and worked in Iran’s nuclear plant’s department, the Mehr agency reported.

So, according to these candidates, America should engage in assassinating scientists, even if we do not know the conditions of their work (willing or under duress) and have no firm evidence that they are producing anything other than nuclear energy for Iran. And if we are caught or accused of trying to kill these people, we should then lie about it.

Such actions are considered acts of terrorism when any other nation does it, but perhaps that is part of “American exceptionalism.”

What was particularly strange to me was the question that was missing from the debate: Why would a nuclear Iran be so dangerous? Candidates have hinted at their answer before — mainly centered on possible Iranian aggression toward Israel — but they seem to assume that a nuclear Iran is dangerous, rather than prove it. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, but there was no talk about what we’re going to do about Israel. Herman Cain may have signaled his answer when he referred to Iran using oil “as a weapon.” In other words, it would be harder for the U.S. to influence Iranian oil production if Iran had a nuclear weapon. 

When the talk turned to Pakistan, Santorum became more disturbing. He argued that Pakistan “must be our friend” because they have nuclear weapons. He argued that foreign aid and diplomacy with Pakistan must continue because of the danger that these weapons might fall into the wrong hands. Of course, no one made the rather obvious connection that this may very well be why Iran might want a nuke of its own (if it is even trying to do so).

Later, several candidates were asked about waterboarding. Herman Cain said he would let military commanders determine what torture was, but he went on to define waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” So much for letting the military decide.

Michele Bachmann indicated that she would restore the practice, though both Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman disagreed, with Paul calling it both illegal and immoral. Paul’s comment drew the ire of Rick Perry, who countered, “This is war. That’s what happens in war, and I am for using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young Americans lives, and I will be for it until I die.”

Ah, “techniques,” not torture. In 2006, after much research, over 100 lawyers and legal researchers sent an open letter to then–Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The letter stated, in part:

Waterboarding is torture. It causes severe physical suffering in the form of reflexive choking, gagging, and the feeling of suffocation. It may cause severe pain in some cases. If uninterrupted, waterboarding will cause death by suffocation. It is also foreseeable that waterboarding, by producing an experience of drowning, will cause severe mental pain and suffering. The technique is a form of mock execution by suffocation with water. The process incapacitates the victim from drawing breath, and causes panic, distress, and terror of imminent death. Many victims of waterboarding suffer prolonged mental harm for years and even decades afterward.

Captives are immobilized on a board, usually strapped down with their hands above their heads. Their heads are covered, and water is poured over their faces. The victims cannot breathe through the mouth or nose, which simulates the feeling of drowning and suffocation.

Good thing it’s only a technique and not torture. That was close.

But what about the assassination of American citizens who are suspected of taking part in terrorism? Romney and Gingrich support it. Gingrich said, “If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant” and are not subject to the rule of law, regardless of citizenship.

Gingrich was wrong. Article III, Section 3 says, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”

The charge of treason is included in the Constitution specifically for American citizens who go to war against their country. Such charges must be made, prosecuted, and proven according to law. Presidents swear to uphold the Constitution, but both Romney and Gingrich showed that they do not know it in the first place.

Candidates were also asked about the Arab Spring, which spurred Gingrich to make some of his strangest comments of the night. Businessweek summarized it this way:

    Gingrich said he would cut foreign aid to countries that adopt anti-Christian policies. Gingrich said the so-called Arab Spring, the democratic uprising in the Mideast, risks becoming “anti-Christian spring” in Muslim nations such as Egypt, where Coptic Christians have been attacked.

Gingrich was not specific about what should be done to combat Christian persecution and offered no specific information about why it bothered him so, though the debate was being held in the Bible Belt state of South Carolina and the Evangelical vote is hugely influential in the GOP. A coincidence, I’m sure. (To understand my cynicism on this matter, I invite the reader to investigate Gingrich’s own moral history. I prefer to operate covertly so that I may maintain deniability.)

Only Ron Paul and, occasionally, Jon Huntsman offered moments of sanity in a debate riddled with calls for military action, economic sanctions, assassination of foreign scientists, assassination of American citizens, lying, cyber-terrorism, and torture. But overall, the GOP is a moral wasteland. Most of its leaders are too comfortable with death and lawlessness for America to be comfortable with them.

Author: Dr. Brian Phillips

Dr. Brian Phillips is a history, philosophy, and rhetoric teacher and serves as the pastor of Holy Trinity Reformed Church in Concord, N.C. You can read more of his writings at Truth and Culture and may e-mail him at