The GOP Debate: Sound and Fury Signifying Little

August 8, 2015

Thursday night was the real beginning of the quadrennial presidential campaign season ― the opening part, the sound-and-fury part you get anytime there are more than three candidates, and anyone not on top shouts hard in order to attract attention and separate themselves from the pack. (In this case, admittedly, the one on top, who already had the attention, still shouted the loudest.)

The sound-and-fury part is also the part where nuance and common sense most frequently fall under the busses of the simplistic, the outraged, and the unrealistic. When it came to foreign and national security policy, Thursday night’s Fox debate pretty much checked all the boxes. Tear up the Iran agreement on my first day in the White House, no matter what the potential negative consequences for American security, the security of our regional allies, and the credibility of American leadership abroad ― no matter what the facts about monitoring and verification presented by respected, objective scientists and international organizations? Check. Someone with no military experience declaring as nonsense Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s judgment there is no simple military solution to the ISIL threat? Check. Insist that Mexico’s “cunning” leaders are dumping criminals into the United States but will pay for a wall to stop it? Check. Insist that the key to effective military strategy for the 21st century isn’t smarter military spending, but more and more military spending? Check. Tie God to the myriad needs of America’s returning veterans and their families? Check.

No one really expected much better as all the horses ran out of the gate to start this very, very long race. But it is still disheartening to hear those vying for the Republican presidential nomination declare the world is complicated ― and simultaneously insist America join them in backing the most simplistic and unrealistic solutions to those challenges. The last successful presidential nominee of this party presided over eight years of a Pandora’s box of American blood and treasure lost because of simplistic, outrageous, knee-jerk, and reactive approaches to hugely complicated problems in the Middle East.

Where in this debate was the discussion of lessons learned? International partnerships work better when we understand what will and won’t motivate potential partners to work with us. Budget sequesters hamper our ability to act effectively abroad. When we topple dictators, we ought to have a better idea of who is likely to emerge to take their places. Those who have spent their careers on far-off battlefields usually have opinions and judgments about those battlefields worth respecting.

The two-level debates Thursday night were fun to watch, and I think more substantive than most “Celebrity Apprentice” episodes. But what we got out of the national security parts was mostly stray voltage and not much illumination.


Doug Wilson, a national security expert who has served in the Pentagon and U.S. Information Agency, is an informal advisor to former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.