Answers for the Next Foreign Policy Debate

November 16th, 2011 at 2:45 pm David Frum | 45 Comments |

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In my column for The Week, I answer my own questions on foreign policy that I suggested for the CBS-National Journal GOP debate:

In advance of last Saturday’s GOP foreign-policy debate, sponsors CBS and National Journal asked me to suggest questions for the moderators.

Unaccountably, they did not make use of my suggestions. Still, I had posted the list on my blog, and soon got a query from an international friend: Okay, wise guy — how would you answer them?

Here goes.

1. Mexico is being torn apart by a civil war to control the drug routes to the United States. Many Mexican leaders urge drug legalization in the U.S. in order to move the drug trade away from violent criminals to legitimate business. If a Mexican president asked you to consider such a step, what would you answer and why?

I would answer No. The drugs driving the violence in Mexico are heroin and cocaine, not marijuana. These are severely dangerous drugs, and to make them more available in the U.S. — especially at a time of economic distress — would also be severely dangerous. The most useful thing we could do to help Mexico defeat the violence of the drug cartels would be to curtail the flow of guns across the border. About 70 percent of weapons seized in Mexico come from the United States. The weapons flowing out of the U.S. are not shotguns or hunting pieces. They are military-style semi-automatic weapons. They were lawfully suppressed in the U.S. between 1994 and 2004, and reimposing such a ban would do more for Mexico at less cost to the United States than relaxing laws against heroin and cocaine.

9. Iraq: Knowing everything you know now, if you had been in Congress in 2002, would you have voted to authorize force against Saddam Hussein, yes or no?

No. For an Iraqi, there was no price too high to pay to rid the country of Saddam Hussein. For Americans, the issue was not Saddam’s badness, but his nuclear weapons program. Knowing that the nuclear program was not a real threat, the invasion was too large a commitment. The world is a better place without Saddam, but as with everything, the question is one of costs and benefits. The costs to the U.S. were too high, the benefits to the U.S. too few.

Click here to read the full column.

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45 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    Oh my… Frum has bitten the bullet on Iraq. Not without a bunch of caveats but on a cost/benefit basis he’s finally fessing up it’s been a disaster. Well…better one sinner saved etc. On the wider issue of the Republican debates the best description of them I’ve seen is by Reaganite Ken Duberstein who said they are like a reality show. A perfect metaphor.

    • Reflection Ephemeral

      Well, I’d argue that it’s not just a metaphor, it’s the new reality. GOP politics involves the discourse of reality TV, not rational argumentation. As I said a little while back, quoting James Fallows and Neil Postman, among others, “It’s no accident that one of the angry young GOP freshmen got his start on an MTV reality TV show. It’s the same skill set.”

      Also, yes, credit here to Frum for pointing out that an evaluation of costs and benefits is part of the process of determining the success of our invasions of foreign countries. That puts him far, far out of the mainstream of the “if it feels good, do it” Republican Party.

      His next step will be to recognize that the case for invasion never made any sense, even on the basis of publicly available information at the time. See, e.g., We were obviously stretching the truth on the threat from UAVs and on the use of aluminum tubes. It gradually came out that other assertions– e.g., we had “bulletproof” evidence of a Saddam-al Qaeda link, that we knew where the WMD were– were equally flimsy.

      It’s a funny thing, I trusted Dick Cheney rather than Mohamad ElBaradei in the run-up to the invasion. (Days before the fighting began, Vice President Dick Cheney[:] “We believe [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. I think Mr. ElBaradei, frankly, is wrong,” ) Then it turned out that Cheney was 100% wrong and ElBaradei had been 100% right.

      I was outraged, for my country, and for playing the dupe.

      But our political conversation makes it look like pretty much no one in America cared.

      • balconesfault

        But our political conversation makes it look like pretty much no one in America cared.

        That is perhaps the saddest thing. So many Americans who seem to be absolutely fine with the demonstrated fact that Cheney pretty much bullied intelligence agencies into giving him reports that only highlighted the high end risks of evidence that was sketchy at best, while burying the debate over whether the evidence had merit, or whether countervailing evidence outweighed it.

        Right now, anyone on the public stage who cites Cheney as a trusted authority (cue Michelle Bachman) should be roundly mocked. Instead people sagely nod their heads.

      • ottovbvs

        “Well, I’d argue that it’s not just a metaphor, it’s the new reality.”

        Er…that doesn’t make reality shows any less of a metaphor for the Republican debates.

        • Reflection Ephemeral

          Well, just like the ocean isn’t a metaphor for a whole bunch of water– it’s just, by definition, what it is– I don’t think that reality TV is a metaphor for Republican debates. It’s just what they are. It’s the same modes of reasoning and argumentation.

          Not really worth disagreeing about too vehemently, but that’s my $.02.

          (And re-reading, the first comment read “like a reality show”, so we’re actually out of the realm of metaphor already. So, even less worth disagreement. And yet I’ll hit “submit”.)

        • ottovbvs

             [met-uh-fawr, -fer]
          a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.

        • Reflection Ephemeral

          Yep, that’s the point: I said that the GOP debates are, literally, a form of reality TV. You used a simile, which you called a metaphor, to suggest that they were separate spheres.

          As I said, a small disagreement.

        • ottovbvs

          It’s a subtle point but I’d say Duberstein’s description was a metaphor not a simile. The debates are not actually reality shows in the sense that we understand them (Survivor, Jersey Shore etc) therefore the term is not literally applicable although as you suggest there are some similarities. Similes are usually reserved for comparisons that are completely unalike (that man is a tiger…last night’s Republican debate was like mud wrestling). At least that’s the way I remember it.

    • nuser

      Would the thousands of American lives lost ,be included in cost/benefits ratio made by Frum?

    • Russnet

      That’s a ridiculous question by Frum and all these responses, including his, are ridiculous. Playing the “had you know then what you know now” game is pointless. Opposition to the invasion pre-March 2003 was weak across the board, except for the Kucinich branch of Congress and liberals who oppose anything military related no matter what history or the facts suggest.

      The suggestion that Cheney or others in NatSec or the White House manipulated data or lied is and can only be based on theory, not fact. If you take the long geopolitical view, the result hasn’t been a disaster. Quite the contrary. Vietnam, with over 56,000 dead, might be said to have been a disaster. Iraq, after the new reality of 9/11, not so much. Tired of this argument. You lost the argument. Bush and Cheney (and McCain) won the argument. Try dealing with it instead of re-writing history with your wishful musings.

      • ottovbvs

        “Opposition to the invasion pre-March 2003 was weak across the board, except for the Kucinich branch of Congress ….instead of re-writing history with your wishful musings”

        The only history re-writing I see here is by you as usual. As best I recall virtually all the democrats in the house voted against the war resolution and in the senate the dems split roughly down the middle. Hardly the Kucinich branch of congress. And well over 60% of the country (sadder and wiser) has concluded it was a debacle and over 75% applaud the decision to withdraw all troops. Hence Bush/Cheney (and you) have lost the argument.

        “Two in three Americans, including half of Republicans, say the Iraq war was not worth the loss of life and costs that came with it. Just 24 percent say the war was worth it.”

      • Reflection Ephemeral

        You may well be lying about the polling & political scene, as otto points out (for my part, I’m perfectly willing to concede that, as you point out, the Democratic Party is skewed too far to the right on the matter of invading countries).

        But it’s worth noting that you’re lying about Dick Cheney’s role, and the reliability of the intel that was used to market the invasion of Iraq.

        From late August 2002 to mid-March of this year, the Bush administration made its case for war by focusing on the threat posed to the United States by Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and by his purported links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. Officials conjured up images of Iraqi mushroom clouds over U.S. cities and of Saddam transferring to Osama bin Laden chemical and biological weapons that could be used to create new and more lethal September elevenths. In Nashville on August 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney warned of a Saddam “armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror” who could “directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.” In Washington on September 26, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed he had “bulletproof” evidence of ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda. And, in Cincinnati on October 7, President George W. Bush warned, “The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons.” Citing Saddam’s association with Al Qaeda, the president added that this “alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.” Yet there was no consensus within the American intelligence community that Saddam represented such a grave and imminent threat. Rather, interviews with current and former intelligence officials and other experts reveal that the Bush administration culled from U.S. intelligence those assessments that supported its position and omitted those that did not. The administration ignored, and even suppressed, disagreement within the intelligence agencies and pressured the CIA to reaffirm its preferred version of the Iraqi threat. Similarly, it stonewalled, and sought to discredit, international weapons inspectors when their findings threatened to undermine the case for war.

        • ottovbvs

          “(for my part, I’m perfectly willing to concede that, as you point out, the Democratic Party is skewed too far to the right on the matter of invading countries).”

          Really? Which countries has the Democratic party urged invasions of?

        • Reflection Ephemeral

          They were too acquiescent to the invasion of Iraq.

        • ottovbvs

          “the Democratic Party is skewed too far to the right on the matter of invading countries).”

          You spoke in the present tense. The Iraq vote was over eight years ago and those that voted for it were responding (as you yourself pointed out) to a load of phoney baloney intelligence presented by people like Powell who were believed to have integrity. It’s impossible to conceive that any bloc on the Democratic side would on its own initiative have advocated the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan for that matter.

        • Reflection Ephemeral

          It’s impossible to conceive that any bloc on the Democratic side would on its own initiative have advocated the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan for that matter.

          Absolutely true.

          I think it is reasonable to look to the events of the previous administration to determine where the parties stand. Looking back 8-10 years, it appears to me that some portion of elected Democrats are too willing to be acquiescent in objectively horrible schemes like the invasion of Iraq, and that Republicans don’t care one iota about any policy, only operating to enrich their paymasters.

        • ottovbvs

          “it appears to me that some portion of elected Democrats are too willing to be acquiescent in objectively horrible schemes”

          Possibly true (and even then only the past tense is appropriate) but that’s not exactly what you said.

  • jdd_stl1

    On the Keystone XL Pipeline issue, “This half-measure threatens to bankrupt the company sponsoring the pipeline, and for minimal environmental benefit.”

    I had not heard the postponing a decision is threatening to bankrupt the company.
    Is TransCanada in that bad a shape?

    • armstp

      It is funny that TransCanada is currently trading with a $28.6 bn market cap, so I guess David Frum will be massively shorting the stock.

  • Ray_Harwick

    So, Obama is going to put a Canadian oil company into bankruptcy?

    I think you get the point. The oil industry isn’t going to support a Pipeline To Nowhere and that naive Canadian company who floated the idea just got hosed by Exxon, Mobile and BP. So you’re blaming Obama for something that was just a bad idea in the first place.

    Are you the “historian” for Keystone?

  • Fart Carbuncle

    I think question number 9 fully exposes Mr. Frum as a liberal Democrat.

    It’s no wonder, then, the vast majority of posters here are like him.

    • TerryF98

      Why don’t you just go somewhere else then Smarg?

    • sweatyb


    • Graychin

      The vast majority of posters here disagree with most of what Mr. Frum says.

      But credit is due when Mr. Frum sees the light – as on Iraq.

      The stock “conservative” answer to criticism of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq has been “So – you want Saddam back in power.” No – but I would like those 3,000+ American military personnel to be alive again. And the bodies and minds of veterans of Iraq made whole. Not to mention the carnage inflicted on the Iraqi people.

    • Ray_Harwick

      So, “conservatives” are in favor of domestic economic devastation brought on by the ickiness of a saber rattler? Not the conservatives I know. To be conservative has always meant “to save for the day of need” and in the case of Iraq, we spent the nation’s hard-earned assets so Halliburtion could turn a profit for Cheney’s retirement fund. It was corporate welfare that cost us 3,000 American sons and daughters.

    • balconesfault

      I think question number 9 fully exposes Mr. Frum as a liberal Democrat.

      CBS News Poll. Nov. 6-10, 2011

      “Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American lives and other costs of attacking Iraq, or not?”
      Worth it 24%
      Not worth it 67%
      Unsure 9%

      By Senior Fart’s mindset, 67% of the country, including 49% of self-declared Republicans, are really liberal Democrats.

      • Reflection Ephemeral

        He’d probably say that’s true, and it’s the climate of permissiveness of those liberals that led Jerry Sandusky to abuse children.

        (Fart Carbunkle: David Brooks’ nom de plume? )

        Of course, when it suits him, Mr. Carbuncle will say that far-left liberals are a hated, irrelevant, vanishingly small minority. All depends on the Republican Party’s needs at that moment in the conversation.

        It’s not like you’re going to get a reasoned argument as to why arbitrarily invading and incompetently occupying a Middle Eastern country is “conservative” by any rational, political-philosophy-based measure. But, it involved targeting outsiders, and the Republican Party engineered it, so, lo, it is “conservative.”

        (Incidentally, it was folks like Mr. Carbuncle (and Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney, and David Brooks) that I had in mind as the “the “if it feels good, do it” Republican Party” above.)

    • gmat

      No, that’s a conservative position he has taken in #9. Very sensible.

      It’s not a NEOconservative position, granted, but then, neoconservatives are not conservative.

  • Moderate

    This piece goes hand in hand with Ramesh Ponnuru’s article yesterday about owning the failures of the Bush administration. Independents aren’t going to vote for someone who thinks the Iraq War was a good idea, or who thinks that wage stagnation and rising health care costs are unimportant.

    I still think the country’s default political preference is for a moderate conservative, but that should come with the qualifier “moderate conservative who doesn’t f*** things up.”

  • dugfromthearth

    1. Real, reasonable answer
    2. Real, reasonable answer
    3. Real, reasonable answer
    4. A bit off a muddle with the “not yet” which makes it seem like it would become obsolete but no clear answer
    5. No answer. Simply saying some things without answering the question.
    6. False answer. The question was if we could prevent it, the answer given was yes, it is being delayed. Delayed is not prevented.
    7. Ducked the question
    8. Ducked the question
    9. Real, reasonable answer

    • Probabilistic

      With these kind of answers, a candidate in this Republican primary season would tread Huntsman territory, probably, even an order of magnitude lower.

      Case in point: Answer # 7 – A consumption tax on fossil fuels and a pollution tax. Lovely idea. Just as a token of good faith, can you Mr. Frum get your buddies to vote out the tax concessions given to big oil?

      Did you also mention smarter cities and more efficient transport? High-speed rail and enhanced CAFE standards, eh? Excellent!

      Answer #6: No regime change in Iran? Stuxnet v2.0 to manage Iranian nuclear ambitions? Sounds like the policy of the current administration.

      Answer # 5: Aren’t you just narrating what happened in the spring? This implies you agree with the position of this administration.

      Answer # 1: I am heartened to note you are for gun restrictions.

      Answer # 3: This sounds awfully close to Tim Geithner’s views.

      Answer # 9: I hope you realize you’re now much closer to those who opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning than those who wrote and uttered those infamous 16 words.

      After reviewing your answers, I’m left wondering Mr. Frum, why you’re opposed to the current administration. Isn’t President Obama the rational, centrist conservative you’re looking for? Am I to assume your mea-culpa is the first step towards aligning yourself with the President in the voting booth next year?

      • nuser

        …..why you are opposed….
        Obama took Jerusalem out of Israel.

        • Probabilistic

          Oh, come on! Frum is thoughtful not petulant. Hah!

          Is it religion or political tribalism that’s infecting his reasoning faculties?

  • LFC

    RE: Question #1 on Mexico and Drugs:

    “I would answer No. The drugs driving the violence in Mexico are heroin and cocaine, not marijuana.”

    This doesn’t sound right to me. I have been reading for years that marijuana actually accounts for more money than the other two, so why would they be driving the violence? It also takes more manpower to move marijuana in that it is bulky. I’d like to see some stats supporting David’s answer.

    • medinnus

      You won’t see those stats here:

      * Because the crops cultivated up and down the West coast for the Mexican cartels are all MJ

      * Because keeping it illegal makes as much sense as keeping alcohol illegal during Prohibition.

      * Because the cash criminal economy it fuels; the corruption, the gun violence, etc.

      * Because he has stock in the prison management companies that directly benefit from keeping everything possible legal.

      * Because he’s incapable of looking up the studies on Portugal and the results of their legalization.

      * Because he doesn’t own stock in Phillip Morris, who would be all over that sucker!

      * Because the taxes paid, if similar to cig taxes, would be a significant increase in gub’ment money.

      But hey – how long did it take him to admit that Iraq might have been an error?

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “The drugs driving the violence in Mexico are heroin and cocaine, not marijuana.” Wow, talk about a fact less assertion. I live here in a region where the Zetas are pretty strong, the pot trade is massive, not long ago on the side of the road they put bales of marijuana under construction materials on the side of the road while they were waiting for it to be picked up and it was done by the Zetas, who are a vicious and extremely dangerous group. I read not long ago that the marijuana trade represents about 50% of the total drug trade (sorry, can’t find the link) but here is some basic info:
    As Mexico’s biggest agricultural export, marijuana generates billions of dollars in revenues each year for the brutal narcotics cartels. By some estimates, it is the most profitable product for the Mexican drug gangs…
    Marijuana and cocaine are the two largest sources of revenue for the cartels, generating billions of dollars in illicit profits each year. But some analysts say marijuana may be the cartels’ greatest source of cash in part because the Mexican gangs control the production, trafficking and distribution of the drug. The cocaine they move has a higher street value, but they initially have to buy it from the Colombians.

    Come on David, you can do better than this. Just don’t make up facts to support your answer.

    • Graychin

      Legalizing marijuana in the US may not cripple the drug cartels, but it would definitely be a big blow to their business.

      Are there any authoritative estimates of the volume of business in the various product lines of the Mexican cartels? The estimates I have seen are all over the place.

    • Sinan

      I agree completely. The drug trade in Mexico is about pot. I am amazed Frum does not know this since it is pretty common knowledge.

    • gmat

      Even if he was right about the “it’s cocaine and heroin, not marijuana” thing, he would still be wrong. Claiming that a drug is “severely dangerous” (meaning what, exactly?) is not a compelling argument against legalizing and regulating it.

    • PracticalGirl

      Yes. Cripple the revenue stream, and sure- get the guns out of the hands of the cartels. Why not both, if you’re really searching for solutions?

  • Oldskool

    “Knowing everything you know now, if you had been in Congress in 2002, would you have voted to authorize force against Saddam Hussein, yes or no?”

    That’s the one I would hope gets asked over and over. As a barometer of someone’s honesty and willingness to engage in party-over-country bullsht, it doesn’t get much better.

  • fatharpdavis

    For a summary of the difficulty of estimating Mexican marijuana revenues, see here:

    There’s an estimate in there somewhere. Here’s a quote:
    “No publicly available source verifies or explains the mythical 60 percent figure and subsequent government analyses revealed great uncertainty about the estimate,” said study co-author Jonathan P. Caulkins, the H. Guyford Stever Professor of Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and Qatar campus. “Our analyses suggest that smuggling marijuana across the Southwest border accounts for 15 to 26 percent of the export revenues generated by Mexican drug trafficking organizations.” (from RAND’s news site)

    I imagine that losing 15-26% of revenue would do considerable harm to the gangs. The US could (and would) also tax marijuana sales, while also saving money on enforcement (I have no idea how much). Even if some of this were directed towards rehab–which I’ve heard is in short supply–this could conceivably lower consumption of other drugs too, though that’s just speculation.

  • think4yourself

    A Republican with those kinds of answers would at least generate a level of honest debate. Of course that individual would be driven out of the Party and could only find a place as a Democrat or Independent.

  • el gato libre

    Since David is dipping his toes into the whole drug thing, I’ve got a question. What about all the Canadian drugs (namely high quality marijuana) coming through the border?

  • kirk

    The position “don’t make drugs legal; ban guns going into Mexico” is remarkably similar to the “turn matter into anti-matter” approach. I am also strongly in favor of several ideas that will not work. I want a diamond as big as a refrigerator buried in my backyard – I refuse to live in a world where there is not a diamond as big as a refrigerator in my back yard [citation, Sam Harris]