Gaffes, Goofs, and What Was Missing from the Republican Presidential Debate

Ed Note. I am pleased to welcome Hayes Brown to UN Dispatch.Hayes is a freelance writer and Michigan State University graduate, working as federal contractor working on security issues. He currently blogs at At Water’s Edge on US-UN relations and other international security topics. Follow him @hayesbrown  — Mark 

More pressing, and worrying, than the several gaffes made on stage during the 11th  GOP debate of the 2012 primary season were the issues and ideas not covered at this meeting of the minds. Europe, East Asia, and Africa went all but ignored, along with broader thematic topics that are sure to face the United States in the next President’s first days in office.

The 11th debate, ostensibly the second debate to deal primarily with foreign policy, offered many of the same policy recommendations as the tenth, with additional applause lines and gaffes strewn about for variety. This time the candidates stood before 19 foreign ambassadors, representatives of a total of 37 embassies, and a packed house, all eager to hear the eight Republicans clearly articulate their views for America’s place in the world in the coming decade and century. Unfortunately, none of them managed to do so in a convincing manner.

Which isn’t to say that the misleading statements given and mistakes made weren’t plentiful and, in instances, stunning. Between Michelle Bachmann suggesting (again) that the ACLU has veto power over CIA actions and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claiming that the United States opening more oil wells would collapse the global price of oil within a year, there were several head-scratching points of interest.

In one of the more easily missed moments, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seemed at one point to suggest that he would seek an indictment of Iranian leadership for violation of the Genocide Convention. Even if the Convention had been violated, which is um, questionable, presumably the trial venue would be the International Criminal Court; could this have been a test balloon by Romney to express his support for the ICC? (No.)

In an example of what wasn’t said, Europe was only mentioned once by the moderators or the candidates.  Even when discussing the economy as a whole, Gingrich only referred to Europe in the context of oil prices and potential sanctions on Iran.  Despite the growing economic crisis within the Eurozone, with this morning news breaking that German bonds had their worst sale in recent history, the Republican field seemed distinctly blasé, refusing to raise the issue without being asked by the CNN moderator. This comes hot on the heels of a rising bond yield rate in Belgium, prompting concerns that even what were thought to be stable economies may be in for a sharp blow in the coming days and weeks. The closest anyone else came to mentioning Europe was vague calls for assistance from “our allies” by Herman Cain on placing pressure on the Syrian regime.

The list continues on from there.  Despite the importance of Asia in the coming years, there was little talk until the very end of the debate about China. President Obama recently concluded what was widely seen as a successful foreign policy trip to Asia where new military commitments in Australia were announced, pressure was placed on China regarding the South China Sea debate, Secretary Clinton was revealed to be heading to Myanmar, and a free-trade zone exclusionary of China was discussed. These events, some precedent breaking, apparently didn’t merit comment.

Coming into this debate, the candidate field has been united in their continued bashing of the United Nations. Almost worse than the expected scorn, the United Nations was completely ignored at this debate. The very words “United Nations” were never spoken, only “U.N.”, uttered only once throughout the entire evening, in the context of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran calling for Israel to be wiped off the map on the floor of the General Assembly. (He didn’t.)

The few glimpses into actual engagement were contained in two separate moments highlighting foreign aid commitments of the United States to countries around the world, the latter showing potential for being a highlight of the debate before being unceremoniously ignored.

In the first instance, Governor Rick Perry of Texas repeated his call for zeroing out the U.S. foreign aid budget, ignoring the flack he took for it in the first foreign policy debate. Governor Perry was taken to task on the need to continue aid to states such as Pakistan by Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, to the surprise of many. The Congresswoman stressed that aid doesn’t act as a “blank check”, but instead comes with benefits for the United States, including intelligence sharing.

In the other, a singular question on development managed to make it before the candidates, asking how the speakers felt about former President George W Bush’s efforts in Africa and elsewhere to grant development aid and reduce AIDS and malaria rates. For a brief moment it seemed as though the Republicans might actually have to discuss the notion of smart power as a policy.

Senator Rick Santorum had what started off as a fantastic answer on the matter, stressing his laudable work on developing PEPFAR and the Global Fund. The need to use our ability to ease suffering abroad as a way to be a “shining beacon” (in Reagan’s parlance) is tantamount to conservative code for soft power.

Unfortunately, he then quickly lost any hope of that being the takeaway by stating that “Africa was a country on the brink” (emphasis mine). Herman Cain refused to grant an opinion on the matter when asked, saying he would have to see all the information on the various aid programs as President, and Ron Paul, who stayed true to his libertarian roots by calling for a cutting off of foreign aid, even for programs to reduce AIDS. None of the current frontrunners were sought to weigh in on the issue.

President Obama is clearly raising the profile of United States involvement in Africa from a security standpoint, having sent advisory troops to Uganda and potentially tacitly endorsing Kenya and Ethiopia’s operations in Somalia. The solitary security policy question about Africa, relating to the current struggles of Somalia against al-Shabaab, went entirely unanswered, with Congressman Ron Paul assuming that the questioner was referring to al-Qaeda instead.  This is not the level of global engagement that many were hoping would be on display.

To be fair, this was clearly a debate intended for the average American viewer, not for wonks, and it is a very large world. That said, it remains worrying that the focus of the portions of the debate actually devoted to foreign policy seemed to be far more centered on the events of the last ten years, rather than the present or next ten years. Pakistan is most certainly a pressing issue and will continue to be a Gordian knot for whoever holds the office of the President on January 20, 2013. To ignore other current issues though, the notion of sovereignty and the ability of states to do as they will to their citizens as is under debate as we face the ongoing effects of the Arab Spring; the interconnected nature of the U.S. and other states in the 21st Century; how we plan on managing relations among rising powers such as India and China, is borderline negligent.