05/07/2011 01:30 pm ET | Updated Jul 07, 2011

In the Shadow of bin Laden: Republicans and the Presidential Debate

If there was a worse week in which to hold the first Republican presidential debate, it's hard to think of when that might be.

It's probably poetic justice that the first Republican presidential debate took place Thursday night in the shadow of Osama bin Laden, for his very existence spurred the accomplishment of some of the right's biggest objectives in the past decade:

* The Bush/Cheney crew had made their desire to invade Iraq clear from the beginning. The post-9/11 atmosphere of fear, and bin Laden's ability to slip through our grasp at Tora Bora, created a very supportive atmosphere for the invasion of Iraq, which was supposedly aligned with bin Laden and supposedly possessed of WMD.

* Then, with Al Qaeda recruitment up in response to America blundering into the Muslim world, that provided more of a rationale to stay in Iraq. In order to defeat Al Qaeda, whose ranks were swelled by the invasion.

* And bin Laden's dramatic 2004 election eve tape threatening America helped George W. Bush eke out his re-election win over John Kerry.

President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden.

So the halting start of the competition for the Republican presidential nomination in the shadow of bin Laden's death holds no little irony.

The first scheduled debate, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley outside Los Angeles, was postponed till the fall. In contrast, the Reagan Library debate four years ago, which I attended, kicked things off with a packed house of top contenders. So too with the Democrats, and their first debate four years ago.

It was left to Fox News to kick things off Thursday night in South Carolina, the state where the Civil War began. Only half the prospective field took part: former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, and pizza mogul/talk radio host Herman Cain.

Watching the debate was a distinctly underwhelming experience for me, and not just because former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Utah Governor/Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, and current blowhard/public spectacle Donald Trump -- not all of whom will run -- didn't show up.

Much of the debate was taken up with national security and foreign policy, to the evident discomfort of the candidates. What did they think? The American president needs to be tough. Tougher than Obama. Though why it's necessary to be tougher than sending the Navy SEALs into another country, decidedly uninvited in their stealth helicopters -- something Bush and Dick Cheney never came close to pulling off, mind you -- to kill Osama bin Laden is unclear. Though perhaps they are just part of the effort to pressure Obama to continue on his clearly unnecessary course in Afghanistan.

New footage, released to Al Jazeera, shows Obama with the National Security Council immediately after the take-down of Osama bin Laden.

The candidates signaled what we should already know, that the Republican presidential field is positioning itself as pro-torture and pro-triumphalist.

All but the two libertarians, Paul and Johnson, want torture -- excuse me, "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- enshrined at the core of our interrogation policy. That was consistent with comments earlier in the week from Republicans looking for a share of the credit for something they were unable to do in office. Who conveniently forget that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times and never gave up bin Laden's courier friend.

And all but former Godfather's Pizza mogul Cain insisted that gruesome photos of the dead Al Qaeda chief should be released. Not that it might infuriate anyone in the Islamic world. Or look at all unseemly to anyone else.

There was a decided lack of geopolitical expertise on that Greenville, South Carolina stage. The candidates with some real experience, Gingrich and Huntsman, will show up later. Republican sources tell me that Gingrich is announcing soon and that Huntsman fully intends to run.

Not that all their particular experiences will be all that helpful in the race for the Republican nomination.

Gingrich served on the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, which famously predicted a major terrorist attack inside America. The Bush/Cheney Administration ignored the commission's report.

Think Gingrich wants to talk about that in the Republican primaries?

In a Wednesday morning interview, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that "enhanced interrogation techniques" were the key to finding Osama bin Laden.

Huntsman served over two years as our ambassador to China. That's a very impressive credential, given China's status as the world's most populous nation and second largest economy, having surpassed Japan last year. Except for one thing. He was appointed by Obama.

In a party in which half of its members believed that Obama is really an illegal alien, and another one-fifth or so weren't sure, that, needless to say, could be a problem.

Meanwhile, the price of crude oil dropped a whopping 15% in the five days since the death of bin Laden, closing at $97.18 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

I post a live link to energy markets every day on my blog, New West Notes, and the closing price before bin Laden's death was $113.93 per barrel.

A substantial amount of the geopolitical risk premium has been wrung out of the price, which should start bringing gasoline prices down unless there is another negative event.

Speaking of risk, let no one suggest that Obama did not take a big risk in ordering this mission. It could easily have gone south.

For one thing, bin Laden might not have been there.

That was the case with the famous 1970 Special Forces raid on the North Vietnamese prison camp at Son Tay. The prisoners had been moved before the rescue force arrived. The election was two years away for then President Richard Nixon, and of course he won in one of the biggest landslides in American history.

The Fox News focus group had former Godfather's Pizza mogul Herman Cain as the winner of the first Republican presidential debate.

And, of course, there was another famous special ops failure, the 1980 fiasco at Desert One in Iran. Then President Jimmy Carter sent in the new Delta Force to rescue the American hostages from the U.S. Embassy. But a helicopter crash killed eight men and disrupted the mission, causing it to be aborted.

This failure helped fuel Ronald Reagan's win over Carter in the presidential election little more than six months later.

We also used the issue, to some effect, in Gary Hart's presidential campaign against former Vice President Walter Mondale four years later. The debacle at Desert One spurred Hart and others to establish the Congressional Military Reform Caucus in 1981 and led the services to get much better organized in the area of special operations.

But even with the evident improvements, Obama must have had a "Desert One" type moment when one of the helicopters crash landed inside bin Laden's compound, causing it to be abandoned. Fortunately, there was a back-up.

The Republicans may need a back-up, too, in their electoral mission.