Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Debate

I’ll leave the “horse race” analysis of the Democratic presidential nominee debate to the Great American Political Blog, except to say that I was surprised by how weak the frontrunners—Clinton, Obama, and Edwards—were coming out of the gate. They sounded stiff and over-coached. They did manage to loosen up as the debate continued. In any case, let's move on to a more substantive issue: foreign policy.

Obama stumbled a bit in this area. Interestingly, he characterized China as “neither a friend nor an enemy—a competitor.” He did show his bona fides on opposing the Iraq War. Hillary Clinton did a mediocre job of justifying her Iraq vote, though she did manage to a strong call for ending the war. Bill Richardson is by far the most qualified and experienced candidate in the realm of foreign policy, but did not get much of a chance to speak about it. Dodd was a non-factor on the issue. Dennis Kucinich was Dennis Kucinich: well-spoken, passionate, but unfortunately not the sort of man you’d entrust the country to. Mike Gravel railed against the “military-industrial complex” and accused the others of wanting to nuke Iran. He interrupted Obama, who handled it gracefully.

The candidate who did the best job differentiating himself without sounding like a crazy person (here’s looking at you, Mike!) was, I thought, Joe Biden. He called for a total reversal in American policy. We should look for conduct change, not regime change, he said. This comes straight from the realist school of foreign policy and is the complete opposite of the regime-change oriented neo-conservatism that has dominated the Bush administration.

Biden raised an important point: currently, we are asking the world’s most dangerous regimes to give up their weapons. Yet we have shown a willingness to invade and take down such regimes that do not possess these weapons, while North Korea is sitting pretty with its nuclear armament. What, then, is the incentive for a brutal dictator to give up his weapons of mass destruction, if they are the only thing between him and an American invasion? If you were the leader of such a regime, it’s pretty clear that you would rather go down the path of Kim Jong-Il than the path of Saddam Hussein. Sanctions are quite bearable compared to being removed from power, tried for crimes against humanity, and possibly executed. We should assume that the leaders of most nasty regimes are very good at self-preservation. That’s how they got into power in the first place. Any reasonable foreign policy needs to take this into account.

One unanswered question: what exactly does Biden meant by “conduct change.” Does he mean improving human rights? Or cooperating with the security interests of the United States? The two are definitely not one and the same.

Biden also got in the best line of the night, in response to a Brian Williams about his loose mouth and whether he could exercise restraint: "Yes." [Silence.]