The first 2011 GOP Debate on Foreign Policy took place in South Carolina with the support of CBS News, which had it on national TV for the first hour. When I say foreign policy I mean neoconservative-style ‘foreign policy’, that is, a debate centered on the question, “who should we bomb next, given the war on terror?”. Indeed, most part of the time was spent discussing whether and how to bomb Iran (given the latest news on its nuclear programme), Pakistan (given the systematic efforts to target US troops connected to the efforts in Afghanistan) and whether and how to use so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. In short: it was a GOP debate on casuistry of applications of the Bush Doctrine, which seems to have become the Party line during the last decade or so, against the humbler mainstream conservatism which originally attempted to keep foreign policy within the confines of the rule of law.
The voice of dissidence, critique and advocacy of change was practically absent, not least because CBS News decided that those who differ from the mainstream position in a debate should not be heard in a… debate. Jon Huntsman, a moderate former ambassador to China, gave what IR scholar and analyst Daniel W. Drezner describes as “the clearest and most coherent answers of the evening”. Huntsman opposes the use of any kind of torture, including ‘enhanced interrogation’, waterboarding, etc. and suggests US military action in Afghanistan should end quite quickly.
Another candidate praised by Drezner is self-defined libertarian constitutionalist Texas Congressman Ron Paul. “The contrast between Paul and the rest of the field was magnified during this debate. As someone who thinks that Paul is too dovish at times, I thought he did a very good job, and got quite passionate on questions of torture”, says Drezner. Paul defends the immediate end of military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Torture, according to him, is not only a violation of domestic and international law, but also “immoral”. The best way of dealing with Iran (or any other nation) is by diplomacy and trade, and not by war and sanctions. Foreign aid should end to all countries, including Israel. The US should not maintain military bases in foreign territories, like South Korea, Japan and Germany.
Despite the positive evaluation of specialists like Drezner, Paul and Huntsman have been allowed to speak for only a small amount of time. Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, has similar views to those of Paul’s, and is a serious candidate in the primaries, but has been systematically ignored and not invited to debates. The rationale provided is that, under time constraints, the criterion for taking part in a TV debate has to do with how the candidates rank in polls.
One should wonder why, then, the same criterion is not applied in the allocation of questions, time for answers and follow ups. In this case, Ron Paul, who maintains a solid two-digit percentage in most respectable polls would definitely not be ranking at the very last place in terms of total debate time allowed. Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann, for example, favouring one of the most hawkish foreign policy platforms that the GOP has ever seen, has been consistently privileged in the primary debates. The same applies to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who, like Huntsman, retains low single-digit percentages, and even Texas Governor Rick Perry, for some time keeping high single-digit performances. House Speaker and History professor Newt Gingrich, who seems to be rising now to the position of ‘media’s flavour of the month’, always attempting to find good points in every other candidate’s platforms, seems to be bidding for a Vice-Presidency deal more than anything else.
Neither has the criterion to do with how much each candidate manages to raise in terms of donations from individuals currently serving the armed forces of the country. On this, Ron Paul wins by a wide margin – he has so far managed to keep an incredible record of more donations than all the rest of the GOP field combined together, and also surpasses those donations sent to the Democratic campaign of current incumbent President Barack Obama. To say the least, such information – which the mainstream media omits with the same consistency as Ron Paul’s voice is blacked out from the debates – is a signal that the military themselves are not impressed with the US government strategists and foreign policy makers.
Another possible reason has to do with the fact that maybe the dissenting voices in the GOP do not attract as much attention as some of the other candidates do, for a series of reasons. Maybe people care more about who mows the lawn at Mitt Romney’s house or how many women were harassed in the past by Herman Cain. These are currently the leading candidates in the media, less because of any strong interest in their actual policies and more because of the kinds of headlines they produce. Some, for example, would say that the nickname “Multiple-choice Mitt” is far from an exaggeration, given the record of flip-flopping on his side. To be fair, in some cases Romney does seem to defend opposing positions because of the principle that different levels of government require different policies, as we can tell from his healthcare reforms as Governor of Massachusetts, highly praised by the Democrat President, but which the candidate himself would not mirror at the Federal level. However, the fact still remains that it is difficult to know just where he stands on so many of the issues.
Cain, in turn, despite the popularity of his 9-9-9 tax reform (which many wish were in fact nein-nein-nein), cannot help coming across as uninteresting, to say the least, in terms of the foreign policy platform. While Romney may still defend the bipartisan hawkish status-quo based on actual knowledge of the issues, Cain himself has confessed there is no plan or strategy for the time being, although he has also indicated the general disposition to retain the course of affairs. Moreover, he has also admitted not to know much about “Yu-beki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”, but that is not really as important as creating American jobs in his view. This he hopes to occur with the triple-nine tax reform that would make it easier to run a business in the country. Fair point. However, when Yubeki-beki is the next place to be randomly bombed with the use of a big chunk of taxpayers money which could otherwise be put to production in the economy (had government not collected it to wage war in the first place), then it does become relevant even by his own standards.
It is clear, then, that the leading candidates are not the mainstream media’s favourites because of coherent argumentation, sound foreign policy proposals, political experience and consistency in their past records. The issue, therefore, can perhaps only be settled in a tentative way. Maybe the thoughts of the media are not our thoughts, neither are their plans our plans. We can look at what the mainstream media’s favourites share: a concern with keeping military interventionism at the same level, or even increase it; a defense of economic interventionism and protectionism; an opinion that Israel deserves a central positive place in debates on foreign policy and that the goals of American strategy should revolve around that distant foreign middle-power; a belief in the myth that certain small nations, which can barely afford gasoline for their military, pose a threat to the country; an idea that the normal state of affairs is now, under permanent and abstract security threats, the state of exception; and that, therefore, measures like ‘enhanced interrogation’ and legislation like the ‘Patriot Act’ are justified. This is the general thrust of the favourite candidates. It happens to be the new Party line, and coherent applications of the incoherent neoconservative agenda.
Thus, what is there left to say, if not that the mainstream media, which has been persistently ‘blacking out’ the voice of change and dissidence on policies that are indeed failing by any standard? A simplistic “it’s a neoconservative conspiracy” will not do, because the Establishment is blind to party colours. Another view could be that the Democratic side of the Establishment perceives the unsuitability and unpopularity of the GOP Party line and wants to help it self-destruct, whereas the Republican side is simply naive in believing two wrongs make a right. This may be the case to a certain extent, but it assumes too much cleverness and organisation on the Democratic side. Moreover, the policies are the same across the board, and Obama is so similar to Bush if we put rhetoric aside, which makes it easier to account for the bipartisan support. The ‘Blue Republicans’ movement, gathering dissident Democrats and independents joining the Republican party so they can vote for Ron Paul as a counterpoint to Obama, is a clear indication of this.
A final option does not provide an answer, but gives us a hint about what is the really interesting question to ask: cui bono – who benefits from picking these candidates, which at this level would not deeply contrast with the status quo? Who benefits from keeping either Obama or the media-favoured Republicans in charge? That is to say, who benefits from the foreign policy of the status quo, regardless of whether it employs blue or red rhetoric? One thing is certain, even before we start answering the question: the general electorate doesn’t seem to be as persuaded of the hegemonic project as they once were. The mainstream media may want to pick their own president. Will the general dissatisfaction with their choice be made manifest in the votes?