In a rare moment of lucidity, Ben Carson recently confessed that “there’s nobody running [for president] who has a great deal of international experience, except for Hillary Clinton.” This was, he stressed, meant as a knock against the former Secretary of State, whose tenure as America’s top diplomat included cascading foreign policy disasters in the Middle East, a disastrous attempt at rapprochement with Russia, and the bloody chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya.
But like many of his fellow Republican presidential candidates, Carson believes the catastrophic failures of an experienced politician require the fresh thinking of an inexperienced civilian with a “logical” foreign policy. And besides, as a doctor he has “the most experience making life or death decisions.”
It’s not just a deficit of foreign policy experience amongst Republicans that should worry voters, but the stunning deficit of foreign policy knowledge. Just two days before his comments about Clinton, Carson stood before the Republican Jewish Coalition fumbling with a prepared script, correctly identifying the confessional allegiance of the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas without having been briefed on how to pronounce Hamas.
One would like to take comfort that Carson’s plummeting popularity is attributable to the comic incoherence of his foreign policy platform. But the continued rise of Donald Trump, whose ideas are dumber (but louder) than Carson’s, neatly disproves this theory.
Since the latest ISIS-affiliated and inspired mass murders in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump has busied himself with solving the problem of violent Islamism. Battling against the scourge of facts, he angrily recalled the 2001 northern New Jersey intifada, in which “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheered the attacks of 9/11 from across the Hudson River. He demonstrated his conservative bona fides when agreeing that the federal government might maintain a database of “all Muslims” in America. When his supporters cheered that idea, Trump turned the crassness up a few notches and suggested that the United States might block entry of every Muslim on Earth.
And what does one do with all of those Syrian war refugees? Trump, the right-wing Walter Ulbricht, believes in the power of walls to contain most every problem facing America, from trade to immigration to radical Islam. His solution is risible but simple: build a “big, beautiful safe zone” within Syria “so people can live and they'll be happier.” (Incidentally, his anti-immigration wall in the United States would be “tall” but, as a sop to aesthetes on the southern border, he promises to “make it very good looking.”)
And that’s just on the home front.
According to Trump, the nettlesome problem of the genocidal, imperialist “Islamic State” isn't so nettlesome after all. In a recent radio ad, he offered a glimpse of his new counterterrorism strategy: President Trump would “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS.” (This is a slight modification of his previously enumerated plan to “bomb the shit out of ISIS”). Not to be outdone, Sen. Ted Cruz has consistently reimagined Raqqa as a desert Dresden, promising to “carpet-bomb [the Islamic State] into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
Cruz later enlarged on his anti-ISIS policies, revealing on Twitter that “if I'm elected president, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS.”
Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
But can we achieve victory through airpower alone? Having previously knocked Marco Rubio as a “neocon” whose hobbies include “military adventurism,” Cruz dismissed the idea of using ground troops in Syria. But with polls suggesting that Americans are spoiling for a fight with Islamism, the Texas senator now says that he would consider "using whatever ground troops are necessary" to defeat ISIS.
Donald Trump too scorns Republicans who supported the Iraq War. But our post-Paris world demands a little more ideological sinew, so he too has vacillated on American ground troops engaging in the fight against ISIS “if need be.” Marco Rubio has been consistent on this point, but adds that we should videotape our raids on “Sunni leadership nodes” and post to YouTube footage of “ISIS leaders cry[ing] like babies when they’re captured.”
All of this would require significant expenditure, and with the exception of Rand Paul, every conservative on stage tonight desires more government spending on the military. While acknowledging that America’s military is the world’s strongest, Trump believes that fattening the Pentagon’s already bloated budget would provoke the ISIS leadership into retreat. He’ll make “the military so strong no one—and I mean no one—will mess with us." (Yesterday, Jeb Bush tweeted that “the day that I’m elected president is the day we begin rebuilding the Armed Forces of America,” which suggests that we won’t be rebuilding the armed forces anytime soon.)
All of these policies are fantastically meaningless, an inconvenience that appears to be of little concern to primary voters. But almost every Republican candidate believes in the vapidity of those voters, swapping out coherent strategy for bellicose rhetoric.
One would think that a renewed focus amongst voters on terrorism would be an opportunity for Republicans, who remain the more trusted party on national security. After all, Hillary Clinton did little to stanch the bleeding in Syria and Bernie Sanders’s most comprehensive foreign policy experience is establishing a sister city program with Nicaragua’s Marxist dictatorship in Vermont. Instead, the Republican brand is now associated with oafish suggestions that the United States Air Force flatten Syria and the Department of Homeland Security create a non-Muslim fortress state.
The hated Republican establishment, we are told, is afraid of renegade ideas. Well, no. They’re afraid of bad ideas. They are afraid of candidates who promise to learn as they lead. Indeed, Trump criticized Carson as “incapable of learning foreign policy,” adding that when the professional conspiracy theorists in his campaign tell him what to think “within about two seconds I understand it.” Because to the current Republican frontrunner, the most powerful man on Earth needn’t have knowledge of foreign policy, but the desire and aptitude for on-the-job training.
And Rasputin-like instincts.
“I predicted Osama bin Laden,” Trump said in November. “In my book, I predicted terrorism. Because I can feel it, like I feel a good location, O.K.?”
O.K. I feel safer now. So when do we commence carpet bombing?