I think there’s a reason no other candidate made any kind of stab at addressing the political problem. They had a window of ninety seconds before an audience looking for applause lines, not exactly the ideal venue to lay out a detailed strategy to sort out violent differences between Sunni, Shia, and Kurds and their Turkish neighbors. I mean, in a perfect world, Brownback would have the time and audience attention span to get into how the oil revenues from around Kirkuk will affect the Turkmen minority, but if you go into a debate looking for that, you’re invariably going to be disappointed.
Two points. First, it's certainly true in a debate forum like last night's, there's a strong incentive for politicians to stick to potential applause lines, and avoid going deeper into the weeds. But that doesn't mean that pundits and journalists should just treat the event like a boxing match, root for the devastating punch or the best one-liner, and make fun of anybody who tries to elevate the discussion even a little for missing an opportunity to win some easy applause. I wasn't disappointed that the debate didn't offer a high-minded discussion of oil revenues and Kirkuk; I was disappointed that when Sam Brownback tried to go at least some distance toward addressing the political problem America faces in Iraq - rather than just insisting that the surge is working, full stop, end of story, no dissent allowed - he got dumped on for being a loser.
Second, maybe a Fox News debate wasn't an ideal venue to lay out "a detailed strategy to sort out violent differences between Sunni, Shia, and Kurds and their Turkish neighbors." But Brownback's remarks on a soft partition were more detailed, on that front, than anything I can find on, say, John McCain's entire website. Or Rudy's. Or Romney's. McCain's site offers the most material on Iraq of any of the major candidates, but it's all just a defense of staying the course with the surge, followed by this:
John McCain believes that only by controlling the violence in Iraq can we pave the way for a political settlement. But once the Iraqi government wields greater authority, it will be incumbent upon Iraqi leaders to take significant steps on their own. These include a commitment to go after the militias, a reconciliation process for insurgents and Baathists, more equitable distribution of government resources, provincial elections that will bring Sunnis into the government, and a large increase in employment-generating economic projects.
All well and good, but it seems clear that whatever the surge's military successes, this kind of political follow-through from the Maliki government just isn't happening. So we need to decide what to do next. Sam Brownback tried to make a contribution to that debate last night. Nobody else did.