Like scores of other think-tankers, I lined up outside DAR Constitution Hall last week for the GOP foreign-policy debate cosponsored by CNN, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
The hoops you had to jump through to get in were a perfect metaphor for 10 years of maddening security theatre. I went through three checkpoints before reaching an apparently non-operational metal detector. (A guard waved me through before I could take out my keys and cellphone. No alarm went off.)
The debate itself was just as frustrating — an exercise in competitive hysteria masquerading as steely resolve.
To listen to the candidates, you'd never know that the al Qaeda threat has receded dramatically in recent years: "A nuclear weapon that they are trying to bring into an American city," "take out entire cities"; "the survival of the United States"; "handed over our interrogation of terrorists to the ACLU"; "all of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives." Two hours of that sort of thing could make you want to stock up on canned food and duct tape yourself into a panic room.
The inexplicably resurgent Newt Gingrich fielded the first question, about extending the PATRIOT Act. Moderator Wolf Blitzer put it in the context of "an alleged terror plot uncovered in New York City," one Jose Pimentel, an unemployable pothead and Muslim convert arrested last week for trying to make pipe bombs.
The former speaker pirouetted deftly to the spectre of nuclear armageddon: "You start thinking about one nuclear weapon in one American city and the scale of loss of life and you ask yourself, what should the president be capable of doing to stop that?"
That's a terrific way to stack the deck in favor of unrestrained executive power; it's also utterly divorced from reality. The homegrown jihadi wannabees we've faced over the last few years aren't the supervillains of Gingrich's imagination.
They're people like Pimentel, who, lacking plutonium (and much in the way of brains), sought to fuel his bombs by scraping the heads off matches. The NYPD moved in before he could "test his abilities by detonating mailboxes."
On the very evening of the debate, the Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. counterterrorism official: "We have rendered the organization that brought us 9/11 operationally ineffective." There are only two high-level targets left in Pakistan, the Post reported.
Can we kill those two guys and call it a day? Not if Mitt Romney has anything to say about it: "We can't just write off a major part of the world" — we need to "draw them toward modernity." The most Romney would allow for was a "gradual transition" toward Afghan self-sufficiency.
"Gradual" indeed: 10 years in, we're "only 50 percent of the way" toward achieving our goals, according to General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom endures indefinitely.
"Drawing them toward modernity," is a "gradual" process as well. The country is currently somewhere in the Bronze Age in terms of moral development. CNN recently reported that authorities in Kabul have jailed a rape victim for having sex out of wedlock. The good news is, she and her child can get out early if she marries her rapist.
If Tuesday's debate was any indication, we may be in for another decade of promiscuous bomb-slinging and armed "community organizing." Among the candidates, only Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman offered alternatives to the Bush-Obama policies of expansive nation-building and enhanced executive power.
The rest seemed to have learned little over the last 10 years.