Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Highlights (and Lowlights) from the Recent Republican Presidential Debates

Since we last reported on the Republican presidential campaign on December 14, there have been four debates as well as a forum hosted by Fox News. Duncan Hunter, Rudy Giuliani, Tom Tancredo, and Fred Thompson no longer remain in the race, and while Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul have yet to formally throw in the towel, most observers believe that either Mitt Romney or John McCain will represent the GOP come November. That said, the race may be all but over by tonight, as McCain holds impressive leads in most of the states up for grabs today (Super Tuesday).

Sadly, on the nuclear and nonproliferation fronts, there is very little to report from the debates. Most of the foreign policy action centered on the merits of going to war with Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the ridiculous tiff between Romney and McCain regarding whether Romney was vociferous enough in his support of the “surge.”

In New Hampshire on January 5 (transcript here), Thompson argued that the threat of CBRN-armed terrorists might necessitate the preemptive use of military force:

We now have terrorists and various groups, al Qaeda, rogue nations in different stages of developing nuclear weapons. We must be prepared for the different kind of weaponry that we're facing. We could be attacked with a biological weapon and not even know it for a long period of time. This is a different world.

So instead of mutually assured destruction, which we lived under for a long time, it's now a world where preemption has got to be an option under the right circumstances.
In South Carolina on January 10 (transcript here), the candidates debated Iran in the context of the naval incident between American ships and Iranian fast boats in the Strait of Hormuz. According to Thompson:
Iran was clearly testing us. They took British hostages under similar circumstances and it proceeded obviously much past what happened to us, but they're testing our resolve. They know that they're dealing with a nation that's not going to put up with that sort of thing. But it's some insight as to the way that they're thinking.
Giuliani chimed in with the following:
Well, this really should give us some sort of indication that the NIE should not be interpreted as the -- the National Intelligence Estimate, where it was suggested that possibly Iran had stopped their nuclear program in 2003, high confidence that they stopped it in 2003, only moderate confidence that they haven't continued it.

I think an incident like this reminds us that we shouldn't be lulled into some false sense of confidence about Iran. We have to be very focused on the fact that Iran should not be allowed to become a nuclear power. We should make it very, very clear that we're not going to allow that, and we should go to every country that we can think of to impose serious sanctions on Iran.
McCain echoed similar sentiments:
Maybe the Iranians think we're weaker because of the NIE. Maybe the Iranians aren't really slowing their export of most lethal explosive devices into Iraq.
And Romney:
And so I believe it was a very serious act. And the Iranians continue to take acts like this, it points out that we have in Iran a very troubled nation.
Needless to say, Thompson, Giuliani, McCain, and Romney all have preconceived notions about Iran which lead them to spin every incident as evidence of Iran’s bellicosity. I doubt that recent media reports suggesting that the actions of the Iranian boats were far less threatening than originally claimed will do anything to change their views.

On the topic of Pakistan, Thompson responded to a question about widespread Pakistani discontent with President Musharraf by noting that:
They're the only Muslim nation in the world that has nuclear weapons and a nuclear capability. Our national security interest and who's hands those nuclear weapons are going to be in is an overriding interest of ours.
Finally, in California on January 30 (transcript here), Romney responded to a question about Vladimir Putin with a much more general observation about international politics:
What we have today in the world is four major, if you will, strategies at play.

One, there are the nations with the energy, like Russia. They're trying to use energy as a way to take over the world.

Then there's China, which is saying, "We're going to use communism plus sort of a Wild West form of -- of free enterprise. We're going to give nuclear weapons to -- or nuclear technology to the Iranians. We're going to buy oil from the Sudanese." You've got China.

Then you've got al Qaeda, which says, "We want to bring everybody down."

And then finally, there's us, the only major power in the world that says, "We believe in free enterprise and freedom for the individual."
As for the larger meaning of this inane quadripartite division of global politics for American grand strategy, well, I'm flummoxed...

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