That the second Republican presidential debate resembled an episode of the Jerry Springer Show was, in part, due to the insufferable Jake Tapper, whose behavior resembled that kid in high school who was always passing poison pen notes around math class. Indeed, the whole sorry mess – all three hours of it – had a high schoolish aura about it best underscored by Sen. Rand Paul early on when he described the behavior onstage as “sophomoric.”
That, indeed, was clearly Tapper’s intent as he went from candidate to candidate saying the equivalent of “This guy said that about you – are you gonna let him get away with it?” The result, for the first 45 minutes or so, was the equivalent of a high school cafeteria food fight that did little to illuminate anything substantial beyond the manipulative power of the media.
The first question – asked by ringmaster Tapper, naturally, who almost shut out his two other co-hosts – was about foreign policy, in a sense, although it was really about Trump’s temperament. Tapper cited Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, one of the second tier long-shot candidates, as saying that Trump is too much of a “hothead” to have his finger on the nuclear trigger. Turning to Carly Fiorina, a media favorite, he asked her if she agreed with that assessment. Carly demurred, backing down – for the moment – from a head on collision with the alleged frontrunner.
Tapper then turned to Trump, who started off the evening with a slap at … Rand Paul, of all people. “He shouldn’t even be on this stage,” he groused, “he’s at one percent.” (Wrong: Paul’s at around 3%, same as Fiorina, as of this writing). The excitable real estate mogul then assured everyone that “believe me, my temperament is very good, very calm.”
I’m not sure how convincing his reply was: The Donald is anything but calm. What’s interesting, however, is that Rand Paul was the only candidate to step up and actually respond to the question – Bush, too gave a Fiorina-esque reply – and his answer was unequivocal:
“Do we want someone with that kind of character, that kind of careless language to be negotiating with Putin? Do we want someone like that to be negotiating with Iran?
“I think really there’s a sophomoric quality that is entertaining about Mr. Trump, but I am worried. I’m very concerned about him – having him in charge of the nuclear weapons, because I think his response, his – his visceral response to attack people on their appearance – short, tall, fat, ugly – my goodness, that happened in junior high. Are we not way above that? Would we not all be worried to have someone like that in charge of the nuclear arsenal?”
In spite of Tapper’s apparent determination to turn the debate into a Barnum & Bailey production, substantive foreign policy issues did come up – although the questions, again dominated almost exclusively by the egomaniacal Tapper, had a pronounced neoconnish spin. Here’s Tapper:
“Russia is sending troops and tanks into Syria right now to prop up a U.S. enemy, Bashar al-Assad. President Obama’s incoming top general says, quote, ‘Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.’
“Mr. Trump, you say you can do business with President Vladimir Putin, you say you will get along, quote, ‘very well.’ What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?”
Surprisingly, Trump challenged the premise of Tapper’s question, averring:
“You look at what’s going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants…. I would talk to[Putin]. I would get along with him. I will get along – I think – with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable – stable world.”
A reasonable approach, and that phrase – “a much more stable world – no doubt resonated with the television audience’s deepest longings: here is Trump, the alleged “hothead,” promising a Return to Normalcy! Who would’ve thought?
The clearly disappointed Tapper naturally turned to the militantly unreasonable Marco Rubio, the neocons’ favorite candidate, who launched into a diatribe about how Russia is trying to supplant us as the Middle East’s most powerful actor and made the rather odd case that Putin is trying to snatch the Saudis away from Washington and into the Kremlin’s orbit – an unlikely scenario, to say the least. Tapper then moved on to another neocon favorite, the icy Ms. Fiorina, who gave him the answer he was looking for:
“Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him.
“What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany.”
Let’s stop right there and fact check. Fiorina gives no indication she knows anything about “Operation Saber Strike,” a huge military exercise only recently completed, which is precisely the aggressive military exercise she says she wants to see. In addition to sending US “trainers” and no doubt covert agents into Ukraine, these exercises are continuing and taking place throughout southeastern Europe and the Baltics. Huge stores of weaponry are being sent to the region.
But this isn’t enough for General Fiorina. She won’t be happy until we’re in another version of the Cuban missile crisis – and then we’ll see where her “don’t talk” doctrine gets her. Oh, but don’t worry, says the “successful” business executive who ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground:
“Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to, because the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control.”
Oh yes, everything is “under control.” That’s what she told Hewlett-Packard’s stockholders until the crippled company had to lay off tens of thousands of workers. As Forbes put it: “Fired in 2005, after six years in office, several leading publications titled her one of the worst technology CEOs of all time.” Yet she ploughed ahead with a straight face:
“We could rebuild the Sixth Fleet. I will. We haven’t. We could rebuild the missile defense program. We haven’t. I will. We could also, to Senator Rubio’s point, give the Egyptians what they’ve asked for, which is intelligence.”
The Sixth Fleet doesn’t need to be rebuilt – it’s already unrivaled in its military dominance of its areas of responsibility, i.e. the Atlantic, Africa, and the Mediterranean. And it’s operating at full capacity, as the Navy Times recently reported:
“Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of NATO forces in Europe, has called for a halt to the drawdown of US troops on the continent in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and throughout Europe. But unlike the Air Force and Army, the Navy and Marine Corps are growing.
“This year, the destroyers Porter and Carney will join the Ross and Donald Cook, forward-based in Rota, Spain. The Navy is also standing up an AEGIS ashore station in Romania in 2015 and will continue to work toward opening a second in Poland.
“The Navy has about 6,800 sailors either stationed or forward deployed in Europe, and that number will rise slightly with the arrival of Porter and Carney, as well as the new BMD stations.
“The Marine Corps added hundreds of Marines to a crisis response team last year in Morón Air Base, Spain, in response to instability in North Africa.
“Having four destroyers in Spain gives NAVEUR more opportunities to partner with other navies, in a way that cycling ships from Norfolk and Mayport doesn’t, [Admiral Mark] Ferguson said.
“Between the four DDGs and the BMD batteries in Eastern Europe, NAVEUR has what it needs going forward, Ferguson said, adding he didn’t anticipate any more forward deployers coming to 6th Fleet.
"’We’re getting what we need in theater,’ he said. ‘Those four ships in Rota actually relieve some strain on the fleet back in the United States. … They are learning the theater, they are building trust with our allies, so the fact that they are a long-term presence really builds their capability far beyond what a rotational ship could build [if it was] just here for a few months, in and out. For me that’s the force-multiplier. If you combine that with the AEGIS Ashore stations and the rotational presence, that’s really the basis of what we are going forward.’" [Emphasis added]
In short: Fiorina doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Her “expertise” – touted in the mainstream media – is as phony as her “successful” business experience.
Aside from her fake military expertise, however, the real question is: what does she propose we do with the Sixth Fleet? Attack Crimea – and start World War III? Tapper didn’t think to ask her that, naturally, and neither did any of the other candidates challenge her.
Next up: the Iran deal, which Sen. Cruz said … well, I won’t even bother to repeat it. Just refer to one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements on the matter and that will suffice, because Cruz – as is his wont – merely repeated Bibi’s talking points. And so Tapper moved on to Rand Paul, who surprised me by reverting to his libertarian self. Asked about Gov. Walker’s remarkably stupid statement that we should cancel the upcoming visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping because of alleged Chinese cyberattacks and “currency manipulation,” Paul took the opportunity to inject a rare note of sanity into the proceedings:
“I think this goes back to essentially what we’ve been saying for the last two or three questions. Carly Fiorina also said we’re not going to talk with Putin. Well, think what if Reagan had said that during the Cold War? We continued to talk with the Russians throughout the Cold War which is much more significant that where we are now.
“Should we continue to talk with Iran? Yes. Should we cut up the agreement immediately? That’s absurd. Wouldn’t you want to know if they complied? Now, I’m going to vote against the agreement because I don’t think there’s significant leverage, but it doesn’t mean that I would immediately not look at the agreement, and cut it up without looking to see if whether or not Iran has complied.”
Paul bowed to neocon pressure and came out against the Iran deal – much to the detriment of his level of support among his father’s followers – and yet here he sounds relatively rational compared to the crazed yelping of the rest of the Republican pack, who sound like wolves howling for fresh meat. Paul continues in this vein:
“The same goes with China. I don’t think we need to be rash, I don’t think we need to be reckless, and I think need to leave lines of communication open. Often we talk about whether we should be engaged in the world, or disengaged in the world, and I think this is an example of some who want to isolate us, actually, and not be engaged.
“We do need to be engaged with Russia. It doesn’t mean we give them a free pass, or China a free pass, but, to be engaged, to continue to talk. We did throughout the Cold War, and it would be a big mistake not to do it here.”
This used to be pretty standard mainstream Republican boilerplate: today it is heresy as far as the GOP – including the donor class – is concerned. Yet Paul may benefit from his Eisenhowesque-Reaganite stance simply because it differentiates him from the other candidates, who are all saying pretty much the same thing.
Yet, come to think of it, this last statement of mine isn’t quite true. Both Trump and Carson – the two frontrunners, mind you – are straying from neoconservative orthodoxy when it comes to foreign policy.
Trump scored big points against Bush when brought up the Iraq war and declared (falsely) that he was the only person on the stage who was against it. (Rand Paul was against it early on.) Of course, Jeb Bush evaded the issue and defended his brother, former President George W. Bush, by stating “He kept us safe.” The stacked audience – MSNBC has pointed out how it was stacked with Bush operatives – burst into sustained applause, but the fact of the matter is that a Bush was President on September 11, 2001, when Osama bin Laden caught us unawares, and in spite of many warnings. Does Jeb think we’ve forgotten?
Jake Tapper, ever the neocon, tried to make an issue of Dr. Carson’s statement that he wouldn’t have invaded Afghanistan, giving the bellicose balloon Chris Christie the bait. Yet Carson staunchly defended his stance, telling us how he went to the White House and argued for a strategy that would have made America energy independent – and thus not dependent on controlling events in the region. “There are smart ways to do things and there are muscular ways to do things,” said Carson in his eminently reasonable tone of voice, “and sometimes you have to look at both of those to come up with the right solution.”
Trump is constantly saying “I’m the most militaristic person in this room,” and yet this debate revealed that when it comes down to specifics he’s actually one of the least militaristic. On Russia, on the Middle East, and on the question of talking to our alleged adversaries, he’s miles away from the Rubio-Fiorina-Cruz et al warmongering of the crazypants Republican “mainstream.”
So what it comes down to is this: the two frontrunners, Trump and Carson– in spite of their occasional blustering – are the ones most willing to throw neocon foreign policy orthodoxy under the bus.
On the other hand, the candidates the media seems to be rooting for – Fiorina and Rubio – are most explicit in their warmongering, and are also way behind in the polls.
What does that tell us?
Well, it tells me that, in this year of the mavericks, the inchoate desire of Americans to stop policing the world and start attending to their problems right here in this country is paramount. It may not find consistent expression in the stream-of-consciousness outbursts of The Donald and the ruminations of Dr. Carson, but it is there nonetheless.
And then there’s the lesson to be learned in the candidacy of the most consistently militaristic candidate of them all: that’s Lindsey Graham, who demands 20,000 troops on the ground in Syria and Iraq (to start), and who wants to confront Putin by arming Ukraine. He is presently a zero percent in the polls – and that pretty much says it all.
The American people never wanted an empire. That expensive and dangerous monstrosity is entirely the child of the political class, which flatters itself with the conceit that it has the right and the knowledge to lord it over most of the earth. Yet the American people are now rebelling against those same masters of conceit, as we are seeing in the poll numbers overwhelmingly favoring outsiders like Trump and Carson. While neither of these candidates is consistent or even coherent most of the time, the electorate instinctively rallies to their side.
What explains the surge of the political outsiders?
The people everyone hates – the Washington elites – hate both Trump and Carson. And, these days, that is good enough for a very sizable chunk of the American people.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.