Fecking Up Foreign Policy

by Michael Dorf

During Tuesday's Republican Presidential Debate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced President Obama as a "feckless weakling." This was not the first appearance of feckless in the current campaign. In May, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham--who apparently still exists and is rumored to be running for President--called Obama feckless. And as early as February of this year, Texas Senator Ted Cruz described Obama's foreign policy as "feckless and naive." The Republican candidates may disagree with one another about many things, but they agree on one: Our current foreign policy is completely lacking in feck (from the Scots language and meaning roughly "effect" or effectiveness). With one exception, they want to increase the feck.

The exception is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, every Democrat's favorite Republican presidential candidate, but only so long as the topic is foreign policy. As Paul noted, Christie's high-feck policy of shooting down Russian planes should they violate Christie's proposed Syrian no-fly zone would be a good way to start World War III. It was not clear to the home audience whether the tepid applause for Paul from the Vegas crowd was a sign that there were a few sane people on hand or whether those people were applauding for the prospect of a civilization-ending conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Christie's Strangelovian threat to go mano-a-mano with Vladamir Putin in the skies over Syria was only one of the three most insane ideas put forward by the Republican candidates at Tuesday's debate. Another came from Cruz, who defended his plan to "carpet bomb" ISIS against the charge that this would lead to killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians by clarifying that he didn't want to carpet-bomb Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared Islamic State, but the ISIS fighters. Said the junior Senator from the Lone Star State: "You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops."

Ted Cruz is Ted Cruz crazy but he's not stupid, and so one can only assume that this was a calculated deception. Cruz disingenuously contrasted the "15 to 30" daily U.S. airstrikes against ISIS with the the "1,100" daily airstrikes carried out during the early phase of the first Gulf War. As David Sanger noted in The NY Times, however, the U.S. used relatively precise munitions in the Gulf War. "Carpet bombing" would have been a war crime. In any event, the airstrikes in early 1991 targeted conventional troops, tanks, and infrastructure--a more or less conventional army. ISIS has some conventional forces, but fighting it is more like fighting an insurgency embedded among the civilian population. The "location of the" ISIS "troops" is a city, making Cruz's distinction meaningless. Carpet bombing "where ISIS is" means carpet bombing Raqqa.

And then there's the racist formerly known as the Donald. Responding to the once-again-eminently-sensible-on-foreign-policy Senator Paul--who correctly noted that Trump's plan to kill the families of terrorists would violate the Geneva Conventions--the execrable GOP front-runner sarcastically neighed: "So, they can kill us, but we can't kill them?"

They. Us. The quip is both sickening and revealing. Trump cannot comprehend a foundational element of international humanitarian law: that even when fighting against forces that disregard the principle of distinction forbidding the targeting of civilians, signatory nations themselves must obey that principle. The idea is incomprehensible to Trump because to him the families of ISIS terrorists are necessarily enemies--them. Give Trump this: At least he's consistent in his prejudices.

Let me be clear that this post is not meant as a defense of President Obama's foreign policy choices. He was dealt a terrible hand by his predecessor's decision to ignite the Middle East, but there undoubtedly were ways in which he could have played it better. However, everything on offer by the Republican candidates (with the exception of Senator Paul, polling at around 2%) looks orders of magnitude worse than Obama's decisions. Better feckless than reckless.