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The GOP debate on Iran was American foreign policy at its most juvenile — and dangerous

Scott Olson/Getty

By the time the Republican presidential candidates gathered onstage for their most recent debate, on Thursday evening, the 10 US sailors who'd drifted into Iranian waters had long since been safely released, and the incident that had first looked quite concerning turned out to be anything but.

The sailors, it turned out, had mistakenly wandered into Iran's waters, ran out of gas, and, to top it all off, lost radio contact. As an anonymous Pentagon official told the New York Times, "The Iran story is frankly embarrassing. We still do not know all of the facts, but these guys and gal apparently were just poor mariners."

And while the Pentagon was rightly upset with Iran's decision to publish photos of the sailors getting detained, all in all it appeared the US and Iran were able to quickly and peacefully defuse and end a situation that could have easily stretched on for days or spiraled into hostility.

But that did not stop the candidates at Thursday's debate from describing the incident as a disaster for the United States. They did not have any complaints about any harm to US interests or American lives; after all, there was none.

Rather, they fumed over the Iran incident as if it had been a particularly notable segment of reality TV, in which their favorite character had suffered a moment of awkward embarrassment at the hands of their least favorite. It was like watching a recap of MTV's Real World, in which everyone is fuming about how that Obama guy just won't pull his weight around the house, and did you see how he totally let that awful Ayatollah Khamenei jerk get away with dissing him?

If it sounds silly, that's because it is. But it's a kind of silliness with real and potentially dire consequences, as the candidates, one by one, promised militarism and an official policy of belligerence, speaking to a world that remembers the last time America tried that and earnestly fears the consequences should it happen again.

"I want to get to the substance of the question on jobs," Sen. Ted Cruz said in response to his very first question of the night. "But I want to start with something, today many of us picked up our newspapers to see the sight of 10 American sailors on their knees with their hands on their head. ... I will tell you, it was heartbreaking."

Notice that Cruz says nothing about the actual consequences for American foreign policy, or even the welfare of the soldiers, who spent the night at the Iranian base and then were sent on their way. Rather, for Cruz, what matters was the theater of it, and the potential for feelings of embarrassment.

Gov. Chris Christie, in turn, brushed off the fact that we'd averted a potential disaster in the Iran incident. Not only was this wrong, he said, but he hinted that in a similar situation he would use military force to punish Iran:

We are not the world's policeman but we need to stand up and be ready. The problem, Maria, is the military is not ready either. We need to rebuild the military. This president let it diminish to a point where tin pot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships. It is disgraceful, and in a Christie administration, they would know much, much better than to do that.

Christie did not explain what military force would achieve, why it was necessary to deploy force in response to a diplomatic incident that had quickly been resolved, or why it was necessary to risk the lives of American soldiers in an armed conflict with Iran over an incident that had caused zero physical harm to anyone.

Now here's Sen. Marco Rubio, describing the Obama administration's dealings with Iran as bad not because of any harm he mentions to the United States or its interests, but rather on grounds that are purely about emotion and theater: Obama's pride is insufficient, and he is not imposing himself on the foreign countries that we dislike.

"Barack Obama believes America is an arrogant global power that needs to be cut down to size," Rubio said. "That is how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel and we gut our military and we go around the world like he has done on 10 separate occasions and apologized for America."

Donald Trump, as he often does, put it all the most plainly, in describing what he says was a campaign event with construction workers who were weeping with wounded pride: "They were watching the humiliation of our young 10 sailors, sitting on the floor with their knees in a begging position, their hands up, and Iranian wiseguys having guns to their heads. It was a terrible sight. A terrible sight."

There are many more such examples, but you get the point here. The candidates were obsessed with the perceived slight to American dignity, which they saw as demanding, if not a military response, then at least vague promises of making America's posture toward Iran more belligerent and hostile.

Even the moderators got in on it, with Neil Cavuto at one point telling Jeb Bush, "For the third time in as many months, the Iranians have provoked us." That the incident had begun with American sailors cruising into another country's sovereign waters was irrelevant. That it had been resolved quickly and peacefully was irrelevant. All that mattered was that it was possible to read the incident as personally embarrassing for the sailors involved, or in some way damaging to American pride.

As I have written previously about this worldview, which is also shared by a number of media figures, it is a world in which high-stakes geopolitical events do not matter for the actual content of those events or for their concrete consequences, but rather primarily for their quality as theater. Foreign policy is not the conduct of relations between states but rather a locker room competition of displays of toughness. The only appropriate posture is thus one of constant and maximal belligerence.

All the stuff about lives at stake, risks of war, and complex diplomatic issues are just window dressing for what really matters: the zero-sum competition for maintaining national pride or imposing national humiliation.

It's not a coincidence that Chris Christie had previously used a playground metaphor, saying that unless we punished Iran, the US will "get its lunch money taken every time."

This is all why, when it became clear that the Iran incident had been defused quickly and diplomatically, first American TV and then the GOP presidential candidates focused rather on two entirely new scandals: that Iranian state media had photographed the US sailors kneeling while they were being detained, and that one of the sailors later called entering Iranian waters "a mistake" for which "we apologize."

This was treated as an unacceptable outrage not because it caused any actual harm to either the American sailors or to US interests — it did neither — but because it could potentially be perceived as a moment of awkward embarrassment for a few US sailors who had made a mistake. Or, worse, a show of minute deference toward the Iranians. Because the only appropriate posture toward Iran is one of constant belligerence, and because all US foreign policy is really just a means of demonstrating the president's personal toughness or lack thereof — remember that the world is just a schoolyard — this was thus a major and unforgivable violation.

This isn't just campaign silliness. It has consequences. As the Washington Post's Dan Drezner shows, "toughness" as a foreign policy strategy isn't just ridiculous. It's dangerous:

All of these guys think that they’ll sound at least as tough as George W. Bush. The thing is, we already know how that movie played out. While Bush ostensibly demonstrated American resolve by invading and then surging in Iraq, North Korea developed a nuclear weapons capability, Iran accelerated its nuclear program, Russia invaded Georgia, China built up its soft power across the Pacific Rim, and Hugo Chavez expanded the Bolivarian bloc in Latin America. As a theory, the notion that any of these guys would deter Iran from doing what it did this week seems pretty laughable.

This is a movie we've seen before, and that the world has seen before. Even if Americans have short memories and are tempted back into a vision of reality TV–style foreign policy where it's all about imposing machismo and cost-benefit is for wimps, I have found, anecdotally but consistently, that no one outside of America has forgotten how it went last time. I don't know that they're going to have an easy time dismissing all this as empty campaign rhetoric, and I don't know that we should, either.