For someone who follows US foreign policy, Tuesday night's GOP debate was almost physically painful to watch. This tweet, from New York Times Magazine contributor Ana Marie Cox, perfectly summarizes why:
This wasn’t a "foreign policy" debate, or even a "national security" debate. It was contest about who could tell the scariest story.— Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox) December 16, 2015
In other words: The debate was more than two hours of scary rhetoric and fearmongering, with pitifully little policy substance to back it up.
"We need to rebuild our military, to destroy ISIS before it destroys us," Jeb Bush declared. "America has been betrayed," Chris Christie announced. "America's influence has declined while this president has destroyed our military," Marco Rubio exclaimed.
And those are all quotes from the opening statements! The entire debate was filled with hyperbole designed to convince the audience that the candidates understand the fact that foreign news today seems very scary. (The reality, incidentally, is that America is safer than it almost ever has been).
And when the candidates got away from fearmongering, and talked about actual policy substance, the debate was very often a nightmare. A few examples:
- Ted Cruz said we should "carpet bomb" ISIS, but clearly didn't know what that meant. And in fact, his whole ISIS answer made no sense.
- Ben Carson's plan for dealing with North Korea was bizarrely focused on Vladimir Putin: He proposed to put the "one horse show" (his term for Putin) "in a box" by doing something to energy exports to Europe. He never explained what that had to do with North Korea.
- Donald Trump called for America to shut down "areas" of the internet "where we are at war with somebody." Nobody, probably including Trump, knows what that means.
Things like this don't happen, as Cox said, in a meaningful debate over foreign policy. But in a night where substance was secondary, and fear came first, policy incoherence was almost beside the point.