CNN National Security Debate: The Return Of The Neocons

After the conclusion of Tuesday night’s GOP national security and foreign policy debate, CNN Democratic political analyst Donna Brazile remarked that the debate seemed like a bad flashback:

This was like retro debate. I felt like we were going back into the past. The neocons — it was like the last hurrah, celebration of the past. Not looking at the current threats and the way the president has handled them and perhaps how we handle future threats to this country.

Brazile is right: Despite the rise of the Tea Party, with its disdain for government, and libertarian non-interventionist Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX) primacy in important Republican races, the GOP seems inextricably wedded to the foreign policy ethos that defined the first George W. Bush term.

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Last night’s debate was hosted by two think tanks with close links to the personnel and ideology of the Bush Administration. Most of the “audience questions” came from scholars from the organizations, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation. The latter, though not as renown for militaristic neoconservatism as the former, nonetheless advocates many similar positions, such as robust defense spending levels, continuing large-scale military commitments in the Middle East and Central Asia, hawkishness on Iran and unflinching support for Israeli government policies.

The Bush foreign policy era connections were on full display last night, despite the fact that Bush himself was barely mentioned. The former president’s unpopularity in the waning days of his administration may be the reason he’s barely been mentioned. In the ten previous debates, Bush one came up only 19 times, most of them critical mentions, according to an analysis by Michael Cohen. Last night, Bush got two shout-outs, both of them from “audience questions” from top former Bush administration officials.

Those officials, and the think tankers that cheered on the administration, featured prominently in the debate. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the most controversial ones and what they asked about:

DAVID ADDINGTON: The Heritage staffer, former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and co-author of the infamous “torture memos,” asked about Syria and what the candidates thought constituted U.S. interests, and “what would you do to protect them.”

DANIELLE PLETKA: The vice president of foreign policy and defense studies at AEI and wife of Romney campaign staffer Stephen Rademaker, Pletka held to her longstanding hawkishness on Iran, positing that “Iran is probably less than a year away from getting a nuclear weapon” and wondering if sanctions could bring an end to Iran’s nuclear program.

EDWIN MEESE III: The former Reagan administration Attorney General and Heritage fellow asked, “Shouldn’t we have a long range extension of the investigative powers contained in [the Patriot Act]?”

MARC THIESSEN: A speechwriter for the Bush White House and Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department who advocates relentlessly for permissive interrogation guidelines — ie. torture — the AEI fellow asked what national security issue the candidates thought was going unmentioned but that loomed on the horizon.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: The AEI scholar and, at the Bush Pentagon, a key architect of the Iraq war, asked if the foreign development aid levels of the Bush administration were possible to attain in the age of austerity.

FRED KAGAN: The AEI scholar and Iraq war dead-ender asked: “Do you think that an expanded drone campaign in Pakistan would be sufficient to defeat al-Qaeda and to secure our interests in Pakistan?”

The Washington Post ThinkTanked blog wondered yesterday if two think-tanks which are closely affiliated with some of the candidates and their hawkish advisers can host an unbiased debate. But journalist Max Blumenthal asked if the bigger issue wasn’t whether a “news network… has handed control over its campaign coverage” to ideological neoconservatives. It seems, though, from watching the debate, that the GOP also acquiesces to a strong neoconservative influence over its foreign policies. If the party retakes the presidency, which controls foreign affairs, the U.S. seems likely to return to the aggressive policies of the first Bush term.