GOP Foreign Policy Debate: Dime-Store Neo-cons

Tonight's GOP presidential foreign policy debate hit some new lows for accuracy and some surprising glimpses of nuance -- but lacked completely a larger sense of strategy or vision from the candidates. Major issues were virtually ignored -- China, defense strategy, nuclear weapons, the Arab Spring and Middle East Peace, the Eurozone crisis, to name a few. Candidates seemed to shrink back from calls for immediate war with Iran and be looking for ways to maximize military approaches (covert action) without admitting openly that they would start more conflicts and send troops abroad again, something Americans of all political stripes now strongly oppose. Below, themes for the water cooler tomorrow and, in all likelihood, the weeks to come.

"The War Continues." Nope, not Afghanistan, hardly mentioned after a Huntsman-Romney exchange, or Iraq, not mentioned at all. Ron Paul's exchanges with Gingrich and Romney highlighted a debate which rages, in a different form, among Democrats as well: are we still "at war;" what does that mean; who is it legitimate to put under extra scrutiny and what means - from profiling all the way to torture, as Senator Ayotte and others have suggested - are appropriate against them? The debate took on a strong libertarian vs. mainstream conservative cast, completely failing to reference what law enforcement and military officials say works: targeting threats, not identities, combining military action to decimate Al Qaeda's leadership, intelligence to discover and prevent plots, and law enforcement to do shoe-leather work and bring would-be perpetrators to justice while denying them the status of warriors they crave. And then there were the attacks on American Muslims, and the cheering from the crowd, both profoundly disrespectful to a community that is here to make a better life like every other, and profoundly counterproductive in fighting terror effectively.

Unexpected appearance of nuance. Bachmann on the need to continue aid to Pakistan because bit is too big to fail, Gingrich on the need for the family values party not to let immigration enforcement tear apart families that have been here for decades, Santorum on the value of foreign aid for preventing the need for military involvement: Several candidates took unexpectedly complex positions on issues -- in each case, issues with which they are more familiar through long service in Congress. Each took flack on it from her or his competitors, but the overall dynamic underlines just how far-removed the GOP debates are from the realities of policy-making -- both the complexity of the world we live in and the far-from-infinite options available to a Commander-in-chief who must make the security of all Americans, not rhetorical swipes, his or her top priority.

Or was that waffling? Romney talked transition for Afghanistan without a timetable and tried to talk tough on Syria without supporting Perry's no-fly zone. His China rhetoric continued to dodge his past opposition to punitive measures against China. Gingrich, who was on both sides of the debate around NATO action in Libya, now wants to use covert action to topple Syria's rulers.

Iran, Iran, Iran, and Syria. From the amount of attention lavished on them, you would think that Iran was a global superpower rather than a country with a bad economy, a political system under siege, and regional capital falling in the wake of the Arab Spring; and that Syria was the leader of the Arab world. Candidates declined to consider that there might be diplomatic or negotiated outcomes to Iran's intransigence on its nuclear program, or - with the surprising exception of Herman Cain and the unsurprising exception of Ron Paul - to acknowledge the military and intelligence experts in the US and Israel who have said that a military attack would be unlikely to end Iran's nuclear program and very likely to have massive negative economic and security consequences. More than one might have expected, though, they urged a course of sanctions first. None took up the full-frontal calls for attack now that have been coming from some quarters in the U.S.and Israel, which suggests that their advisers are hearing those concerns privately - or that they've noticed polling which shows Americans' distinct lack of enthusiasm for an Iranian adventure. Only 16% of Americans support an attack now, CNN said today; even among Republicans the number rises only to 22%.

Dishonest and Wrong. So many misstatements I lost track. A few of my favorites: "apology tour," which the WashingtonPost factchecker has already given a full Pinocchio; Herman Cain saying we should cut off the oil exports of Syria, which wouldn't be so dependent on Iran if it had more oil; repeated claims that terrorists in general and Hezbollah/Hamas in particular are infiltrating the US via Mexico, when in fact no third-country national arrested on the Mexican border has yet been charged with terror-related offenses; Mitt Romney's list of alleged Obama "defense cuts," some of which were supported by John McCain and the Tea Party and all of which occurred before the Budget Control Act - in fact the defense budget hasn't yet been cut; questioner Danielle Pletka claiming the Iran has decided to weaponize and is less than a year away, disagreeing with the CIA and IAEA; and of course the particular, glorious bit of crazy about the ACLU running the CIA.

Not Torn From the Headlines. Candidates ducked a direct question on al Shabaab in Somalia and evaded the invitation to talk about Egypt, where dozens of deaths and huge demonstrations in the last 72 hours have placed next week's parliamentary elections and the entire transition in doubt. Moderators and questioners alike failed to bring up the euro crisis, which has the potential to spread to US banks and plunge the economy into another full-on recession; Russia, where Vladimir Putin is poised to return to formal leadership; and the Middle East peace process, or lack thereof..

All Tactics, No Strategy. Newt Gingrich insisted we could find ways to save money on defense; but what is the role of our military now, in five years? What is the role of nuclear weapons? Several candidates insisted that we are still or forever in a global war against violent extremism - how do we win that war? When does it end? How do we change the Iranian regime, as Gingrich proposed, repeatedly, and what do we do after a military attack? How should foreign policy be helping improve the lives and employment prospects of Americans? What would the candidates' strategy toward China be? What about other new global powers such as Turkey, India, Brazil? How do we understand the Arab Spring, as Egyptians once again sacrifice their lives demanding democratic civilian rule, and how should the US respond? Above all, what would the "next American century" that Romney and others promise look like?

From the euro crisis to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff to the violent response to protestors in Syria and now, again, Egypt to the failure of the Super Committee, governments everywhere are lacking the political courage but also the policy tools to fashion meaningful responses to existential challenges. And publics everywhere, at the risk of over-simplifying, are responding with simple anger: we're not going to tell you how to fix it, but we want it fixed.

It isn't entirely clear that all the GOP candidates even see this unnerving pattern. But it is quite clear they don't have answers.