Now that we’re a couple of days removed from the last Republican debate and have had sufficient time to digest all the various offerings of bellicose insanity the candidates served up, we can take a moment to appreciate just how thoroughly blinkered and disassociated from reality the GOP foreign policy rhetoric has become.
I want to echo my colleague Sean Illing and give Sen. Rand Paul a measure of praise for helping to make clear just how nuts his fellow candidates are. Rand’s best moment of the night came right after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that he would give Vladimir Putin a little Joisey boostafazoo by setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and shooting down any Russian planes that violated it. Rand was asked to respond and explained the obvious: Shooting down Russian jets is an extremely bad and ungood idea. “It is a recipe for disaster. It's a recipe for World War III,” Paul said. “We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but we don't need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war.”
Christie, however, prides himself on his manly swagger and “eyyyyyyyyy I got your recklessness right here” attitude. So he went on CBS News’ morning show and said that it would be impossible for him to start World War III because IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING. “The problem for folks like Senator Paul is they don't realize we're already in World War III,” Christie said. “The fact is that this is a new world war and it won't look like the last two.”
Now, it’s important to point out here that no, there is no world war happening. And as part of the world war that is not happening, we are not at war with Russia. The thing we are, in fact, at war with is terrorism, and Christie is correct that that war does not look like the two World Wars – because it is not a world war. Rand’s point, which Christie studiously avoided in the interest of sounding tough and macho, is that provoking a military confrontation with Russia will in fact increase the risk of an actual world war dramatically.
But the state of Republican politics is such that a comment like Christie’s – inaccurate and irresponsible and bugnuts as it is – is well within the bounds of acceptable rhetoric. The party puts such a premium on bellicosity and the “projection of strength” that arguing against a potential military conflict with a nuclear state is considered feckless “isolationism.” The only way to run into trouble in Republican national security politics is to not go far enough in inflating the severity of threats, because that shows you’re just not serious enough to understand the danger.
Take as another example the Republican and conservative posture during the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. From the very start, the mere idea of diplomatic outreach to a hostile government was considered an act of weakness and capitulation. But as the negotiations moved forward and eventually culminated in a diplomatic framework, it became something of a cliché on the right to compare the Obama administration to benighted British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who famously brokered the Munich Pact with Adolf Hitler as a means to avoid war. That analogy, of course, thrusts Iran into the role of Nazi Germany, and the obvious implication was that supporting diplomacy with Iran (or opposing military action to halt its nuclear progress) is tantamount to laying down before the Third Reich.
It’s an absurd comparison on several levels, but it’s also common currency on the right. If you look back at pretty much every diplomatic effort the Obama administration has pursued with countries that are antagonistic to the U.S., you’ll find some prominent conservative or high-ranking Republican pulling out the Munich card to argue against it.
It’s not actually possible for all these different adversaries to be comparable to the Nazis. It’s obvious to even the most casual observer that the military campaigns we’re engaged in now don’t even approach the scale and devastation of a “World War.” But these are the starting points for Republican foreign policy discussions, and the immediate escalation of threats to the existential level is warping our understanding of foreign policy and how we debate national security. It’s a deliberate strategy by the right to exaggerate threats in the hopes of making their opposition look weak and naïve for not supporting the most militaristic response. When Chris Christie says we’re already in World War III, he’s being hysterical and ridiculous. But for too many it’s a sign that he’s “serious” about national security.