A semi-sober recap of the CNN-AEI-Heritage foreign policy debate

Having watched the last national security debate ten days ago, tonight's CNN/Heritage/AEI debate felt at times like a stale rerun.  Michelle Bachmann trotted out her same ACLU line, Mitt Romney made the same bleats about the American Century, Ron Paul was … Ron Paul. 

Having now watched way too many of these suckers, I'm probably far too inebriated jaded to evaluate these candidates in the same way that a newcomer to their positions would.  They still have to appeal to those newcomers, however, so I can't fault them entirely for repeats. 

This is a long-winded way of saying that this debate left me in a very sour mood, primarily because of the following:

1)  CNN decided to -- yet again -- waste 15 minutes with various forms of opening introductions.  That's 15 minutes that could have been devoted to actual questions. 

2)  Many of the AEI and Heritage think-tankers asked excellent questions, but why did David Addington and Marc Thiessen get to ask questions while Derek Scissors or Sadanand Dhume didn't?  The effect was that, after two hours, not one question was asked about China, North Korea, the rest of the Pacific Rim, India, the eurozone, NATO, Egypt, or Russia.  That's just horrible debate management on someone's part. 

3)  All of the leading candidates said something mind-numbingly stupid.  Newt Gingrich claimed that if the United States just unleashed the domestic oil drills, the global price for oil would crash within a year.  That's a crock.  Mitt Romney suggested trying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide.  I'm no fan of Ahmadinejad, but... huh?  Ron Paul claimed that Israel had sacrificed its sovereignty to the United States, which is an... interesting interpretation of events.  He also claimed that all American foreign aid was worthless, which would be news to the Africans not suffering from malaria or tuberculosis. 

So, with those provisos, my quick letter grades:

Newt Gingrich:  A-  Beyond that energy answer, Gingrich was probably the best of the lot, but that was as much due to style as substance.  He gave a lot of "we need to be more strategic than tactical" bromides to start, but to be fair, when pushed he gave cogent answers. 

Jon Hunstman:  A-  Huntsman went hard after Romney on the commander-in-chief question, and for much of the night gave the best answers to myriad questions.  That said, he also had some surprisingly weak answers at times, like on the use of drones in Pakistan. 

Ron Paul:  B+  Consistent as always in his approach, and in some ways he offers the most logically coherent foreign policy of the bunch.  As a debater, however, he's second rate.  Gingrich schooled him on a question regarding homeland security, for example, when I symathize much more with Paul's position. 

Michelle Bachmann:  B  At this point, Michelle Bachmann is a one-trick pony.  On Pakistan -- a particularly tough issue -- she gives thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent responses.  Everything else is Crazytown.  Pakistan took up a large part of the debate, however, so she did well, takin Perry in paticular to task. 

Rick Santorum:  B  He gave a good answer on foreign aid, and cracked a funny joke about agreeing with Ron Paul.  Unfortunately, he also said, "Africa was a country on the brink."  Oops.   

Mitt Romney:  B-  Any time you screw up your own introduction, it's going to be a bad night.  Romney wasn't horrible by any stretch, but he got pushed by Huntsman on civil-military relations and by Gingrich on immigration.  Those guys are no Rick Perry.  He did rally with a very thoughtful and considered answer on Syria, however.... in which he schooled Rick Perry.  

Rick Perry:  D  At this point, Perry serves mostly as a foil to make other candidates (Paul, Bachmann, Romney) look smarter.  Hard to believe this man was the front-runner, ever. 

Herman Cain:  F  The mercy rule is, thankfully, still in effect. 

What did you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Too Big to Pivot

Walter Russell Mead has not been the biggest fan of the current president, so it's worth quoting at length what he said in a recent blog post about Obama's Pacific Rim trip

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever.  The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted.  Rarely have so many red lines been crossed.  Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast.  It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud....

[I]t was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see.  Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team.  The State Department, the Department of Defense and the White House have clearly been working effectively together on an intensive and complex strategy.  They avoided leaks, they coordinated effectively with half a dozen countries, they deployed a range of instruments of power.  In the field of foreign policy, this was a coming of age of the Obama administration and it was conceived and executed about as flawlessly as these things ever can be.

You know it was a good foreign policy trip when Politico runs the "Obama will soon miss his foreign policy successes as he returns to the Washington mire" storyline upon his return. 

The standard line among the press and expert analysts is that the combination of speeches and actions represents a dramatic foreign policy "pivot" to East Asia.  This elides some prior speeches that suggested this was under way for some time, but still -- what does it mean? 

I'd suggest three things.  First, it's an interesting moment to highlight some macro trends that are relatively favorable to the United States.  In comparison to, say, China or Europe, the United States looks to be in decent shape.  Over the longer term, trends in both energy and manufacturing suggest that the United States will continue a time-honored tradition and emerge from a crisis of its own making in a stronger relative position than before.  If the administration is smart, it will marry its recent successes to these longer-term trends as a way of constructing a more optimistic strategic narrative. 

Second, China is likely to pursue a more accommodating posture in the short run.  As Mead notes, the official Chinese reaction has been muted.  The unofficial reaction has ranged from the hyperbolic to the inscrutable.  Still, as I've pointed out repeatedly, China's behavior in 2009 and 2010 was a giant honking invitation for the rest of the Pacific Rim to cozy up to the United States.  And that's what should worry Beijing.  It's not that the United States is interested in maintaining its presence in East Asia -- that interest has not wavered.  What has changed is the eagerness with which the countries in the region, ranging from Australia to Myanmar, have reciprocated. 

Third, while the Obama administration deserves credit for this foreign policy swing -- and for some fun, compare and contrast coverage of this trip with Obama's Pac Rim swing from two years ago -- the "pivot" language is badly misplaced.  A pivot implies that the United States will stop paying attention to Europe or the Middle East and start paying attention to East Asia.  While I'm sure that's what the Obama administration wants to do, it can't.  Europe is imploding, as are multiple countries in the Middle East.  The United States can't afford to ignore these regions, since uncertainty there eventually translates into both global and domestic problems.  A European financial meltdown or an Egyptian political meltdown will have ramifications that simply can't be ignored. 

Talking about a United States "pivot" in foreign policy is meaningless.  The US, like an overstuffed couch, is simply too big to pivot. 

What do you think?