Voters watching last week’s Republican debate on national security for clues about foreign policy under a new Republican administration could be forgiven if they turned away in frustration. The contenders offered such a range of wildly divergent — and often contradictory — views that nothing coherent emerged about what the Republican Party stands for or how its nominee would deal with the outside world.
A strong defense is a clear Republican priority, some would argue. But Ron Paul rails away against runaway military spending and foreign wars. Jon Huntsman, too, says it’s time to bring most of the troops home from Afghanistan and pay attention to nation building at home rather than over there. Herman Cain supports an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations — provided we’re certain it will be quick and clean and certain to work, a caveat about as helpful as his 999 cure-all.
Mitt Romney wants to keep America exceptional by maintaining unquestioned military superiority and to be guided by what the generals recommend in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. One of his own colleagues on the stage pointed out that we tried that in Vietnam — listening to the generals — and ended up with a debacle. Another noted that the president is commander in chief and needs to take advice from all quarters — civilian as well as military — before deciding when to intervene and which instruments of power to employ for how long.
Rick Perry says we should quit sending blank checks abroad to countries like Pakistan, but gets challenged on that by fellow conservatives Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Bachmann says we can’t just walk away from Pakistan, which is “too nuclear to fail” and critical to our prospects for success in that region. Santorum defends foreign aid, arguing that if we cut back on it we’ll wind up spending even more on the military due to increased unrest.
Goals at war with each other
It would have been bracing to see one of the candidates acknowledge that we have to either cut defense dramatically or raise taxes. But no one displayed such a profile in courage; none endorsed a debt-relief package that would include tax or revenue increases. Whatever their disagreements on foreign policy, Republicans, goaded by anti-tax pledge czar Grover Norquist, agree that taxes should go down, not up. Unfortunately, these three goals — keeping defense spending high, taxes low and the debt declining — are at war with each other.
Jon Huntsman was right on the money when he suggested that such dishonesty was leading to a loss of trust in our institutions; approval of Congress, for example, is now in the single digits for the first time ever. Getting our house in order and solving fundamental problems will require give and take — real compromise — but none of the presidential contenders has been bold enough to say so. Neither was the supercommittee able to do its job; it, too, split on partisan lines, unable to make the tradeoff between spending cuts and revenue increases that every outside group that’s studied the debt problem agrees is necessary and that polls show two thirds of Americans support.
National debate lacks candor
Our broader national debate this season lacks candor about what ails us and how to fix it. One home truth is that we can’t solve our budget deficits overnight or without increasing revenue. Another is that we spend far too much on the military — nearly half the world’s total — and need to scale back our commitments as well as our military establishment. Entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must also be reformed — that is, improved and made more cost effective, not privatized or abandoned.
Immigration reform is another vital matter on the national agenda. On this issue, too, the Republican contenders offered conflicting perspectives in this week’s debate. Scare words like “amnesty” get in the way of rational discussion about what to do. And yet most Americans know that the solution lies in a package that includes tougher enforcement of the border, provision for guest workers and some sort of path to legality for those who have already lived in this country for many years, undocumented but working, paying taxes and raising families.
A great country faces up to challenges like these and forges a consensus on how to meet them. Instead of telling us comfortable lies and proclaiming our greatness, office seekers should be expected to show how they propose to lead us there.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who currently serves as diplomat-in-residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. He lives in Plymouth.