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“The illusions about the possibility of managing historical destiny from any particular standpoint in history,” the great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “always involve … miscalculations about both the power and the wisdom of the managers and of the weakness and the manageability of the historical ‘stuff’ which is to be managed.”
It seems most of the Republicans vying for the party’s nomination for president — Ron Paul and John Huntsman excepted — suffer from this same illusion.
On Saturday night, the top eight GOP candidates — Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Huntsman — squared off for a foreign-policy debate in South Carolina sponsored by CBS News and National Journal, dubbed “The Commander-in-Chief Debate.” All it showed is that we shouldn’t want most of these guys (and gal) anywhere near the White House.
Every nominee excoriated President Barack Obama and his foreign policy, from his handling of Afghanistan to his administration’s interrogation techniques to his supposed mishandling of Iran. This seems to be a mistake: the president, though weak on nearly all domestic affairs, is a veritable powerhouse on foreign policy; he is perhaps the strongest president on these issues since Bush the Elder.
The polls bear this out: According to Gallup, the president receives a 49 percent approval on foreign affairs, well above his 30 percent approval the economy, with 63 percent of the American people approving of the president’s combating terrorism.
Why the candidates think this is a successful campaign strategy is anybody’s guess.
The “illusions” that Niebuhr argued against were on full display when it came to the issues of Iran and Pakistan.
Both Romney and Gingrich advocated going to war with Iran to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon, arguing that a nuclear-capable Iran is “unacceptable.”
Even George W. Bush sought to avoid war with Iran.
A war with Iran would be supreme folly. Our troops are stretched thin as it is. And, even supposing we take out its nuclear facilities, what would replace the Iranian government we would depose? Would we have any assurance that the Iranian people wouldn’t be more radical than the current regime?
Even if Iran did become nuclear-capable, our best deterrent is our strength: if Iran ever thought about attacking Israel or the United States, we could bomb them into oblivion. As the great philosopher Jim Croce said, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”
The candidates sounded even worse on Pakistan.
Cain said he didn’t know if Pakistan was a friend or foe: “That relationship must be reevaluated,” he said. Romney characterized it as “close to being a failed state.” Both Perry and Gingrich criticized Pakistan.
The leader of America’s foreign policy cannot be someone who will treat Pakistan, a perilously important country in the Middle East, in such a derogatory manner.
Amazingly enough, it was Santorum who brought a sense of prudence and wisdom to the discussion.
“Pakistan must be a friend of the United States,” Santorum argued. “It’s important for us, with a nuclear power with a very vast number of people in Pakistan who are radicalizing, that we keep a solid and stable relationship and work through our difficulties.”
This debate showed the American people that on foreign policy, the single most important executive function, many of the GOP candidates are at best misguided, and at worst deranged.
They think that they can, to paraphrase Mr. Niebuhr, manage the historical destiny of the United States by bombing Iran and “defriending” Pakistan; this illusion is based on a misguided sense of the power and capabilities of the United States.