When France wisely declined to back the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq, American war hawks portrayed the French as cowards, renaming a favorite artery-clogging delicacy "freedom fries" to mock our erstwhile allies. But who looks scared today?
In national elections last week, voters in France, still reeling from a brutal terrorist attack, prevented the far-right National Front party from winning any of the country's 12 regions. The reactionary, anti-immigrant party did well by past standards, enabling its disappointed leaders to spin the results, but after doing well in the first round of voting just three weeks after the Paris attacks, when turnout was low, the FN faltered in the second round, when an estimated 60 percent of voters came to the polls and backed the FN's mainstream rivals. Fear and the purveyors of fear didn't triumph in France.
The United States, in fact, appears to have been more frightened by the attacks in France than were the French. This blanket indictment may be unfair as the presidential campaign has created an echo chamber for the most fearful, whose terrified bleatings dominate the political discourse.
"Be afraid, be very afraid" has been the motto of Washington Republicans for years now, on subjects as varied as the Affordable Care Act, gay marriage, and foreign policy. The latter was the subject of Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, and when it came to the knotty problems posed by the Middle East, the candidates largely had difficulty moving beyond the sowing of fear to the presentation of coherent policies.
Their problem is two-fold. While they are obligated to criticize President Obama, doing so exposes weaknesses in their strategies that their rivals are pleased to draw attention to. And in the wake of the Iraq War disaster, the former Republican philosophy of attack first and ask questions later no longer flies with many Republicans, let alone the general electorate.
Donald Trump is the party's leading purveyor of fear and hysteria, going as far as to argue that the United States should seek to take out the families of terrorists. Senator Rand Paul on Tuesday night pointed out that strategies like Mr. Trump's would put the United States in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Mr. Paul's forceful reminder that the United States is obligated to live up to international standards of morality was certainly welcome.
The Kentucky senator also poked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for coming across like Dr. Strangelove in his eagerness to pick a fight with the Russians. Senator Ted Cruz, who claimed that overwhelming air power is the key to defeating ISIS, appears to have missed everything that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan since the Bush White House's "shock and awe" campaign failed to do either. Governor John Kasich and Carly Fiorina engaged in tough talk that came across as forced, but they at least knew the players and the terrain, in contrast to Ben Carson, who seems to believe that doing pre-debate homework is beneath him.
Kudos to Jeb Bush, who at this point appears to want to deflate Mr. Trump more than win the nomination, for declaring that defeating Islamic terrorists means that "we can't disassociate ourselves from peace-loving Muslims." Senator Marco Rubio benefited from his head-to-head confrontations with Senator Cruz, as the Floridian at least appeared to know what he was talking about. Senator Lindsey Graham is probably the strongest Republican candidate on foreign policy, as he demonstrated Tuesday in the "children's table" debate that preceded the main event, but while both senators are knowledgeable, each appears to be from the failed interventionist school of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al.
For examples of grace under pressure and calm in the face of terror, the presidential debate of Tuesday night was definitely not the place to look. Look to France instead.