A Question of Questions

It isn’t every day that I agree with Peggy Noonan. In fact, I don’t agree with Peggy Noonan on most days. That said, in the spirit of bipartisanship that has been sweeping our country lately, I’ll admit it: today, I agree with Peggy Noonan. Ms. Noonan, a former special assistant to President Reagan and the architect of some of his most famous public remarks, penned a piece in the pages of the Wall Street Journal – where she is a regular columnist – about the dangers of cavalier attitudes towards national security policy. Her central question is ideal one for class studying national security in the “digital media age:” does the media’s treatment of national security issues in the Republican primary debate actually degrade the seriousness of our discussions and threaten our ability to conduct diplomacy in the future? In Ms. Noonan’s own words:

The videos each cable outfit now makes to introduce each debate have taken on a weird, hyperventilating tone. Tuesday’s theme-setter included bombs dropping, jets roaring, presidents sweating, machine guns, screaming dictators, explosions and street demonstrators. Then, in urgent and dramatic tones: “The Republican National Security Debate begins—now.” Guys, get a grip. Republican National Committee, start asking to OK the videos beforehand. This is a major-party nomination for the presidency, not a trailer for “Homeland.”

Though I haven’t been able to find a clip of CNN’s introduction to the national security debate on November 22nd, I’m willing to take Ms. Noonan’s word for it. Two points in her criticism of the kind of “urgent and dramatic tones” she saw in the debates a few weeks ago stand out, namely the impact this kind of gung-ho rhetoric has on our image abroad and the effect phrases like “covert action in Syria” have on policymakers’ ability to conduct foreign policy.

Searches in scholarly databases and using Google did not yield an abundance of research on the impact of the media’s “weird, hyperventilating tone” in presenting national security issues at presidential primary debates. However, I think we can draw several conclusions from watching such debates and listening to the answers of candidates. As Ms. Noonan puts it:

Here are just a few phrases and sentences that were lobbed about for two hours. “Protect ourselves from those who, if they could, would not just kill us individually but would take out entire cities,” “expanded drone campaign,” “they can’t be trusted,” “strong special forces presence,” “hot pursuit,” “slapped new sanctions,” “no-fly zone over Syria,” “nuclear weapon in one American city,” “break the Iranian regime,” “sabotaging the oil refinery,” “crippling sanctions,” “centrifuges spinning,” “covert actions within Syria to get regime change,” there is an “imminent threat” in Latin America, “we have been attacked,” “doctrine of appeasement.” It was all pretty revved up and dramatic.

The language is profoundly disturbing. One point that Ms. Noonan does not make, and that I wonder about it, is how the use of language and imagery by the moderators constrains the answers politicans feel comfortable giving. If CNN’s chosen graphics for a national security debate are all derived from war and warmaking institutions, that would seem to send a strong message to candidates and viewers about the role of the Department of State, for instance, in national security. A strong, minimizing message. A skim of the highlights from the debate seems to reinforce that assertion; by my ears, candidates responded to most questions about how to contend with conflict in other nations by explaining the tenets of their military strategy. The emphasis was clear: Department of Defense good, Department of State bad.

The internal impact – the impact on candidates and their messages – seems clear, but what about external impact? How might China react to Mitt Romney’s declaration of war on their currency at the CBS debate weeks ago? It’s hard to know for certain, but I think their reaction would be negative. That has an obvious and immediate effect on our diplomacy today; China would not be out of bounds in asking Ambassador Locke to explain how the Obama administration differs with one of its most promiment public citizens on the issue, and that conversation would likely be an awkward one. The long-term effect is equally disturbing, though. Imagine that Mr. Romney wins the election – god forbid – and takes his first trip to China, with trade and debt issues on the table for discussion. You have to wonder about the length of Hu Jintao’s memory in predicting his willingness to work with the man who called him a “currency manipulator.” I have to think it would be long.

We’re left with a question of questions. Should moderators and journalists really ask candidates such specific questions about national security strategy, knowing that in the 21st century, the entire world is watching?

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