Foreign policy has not been a popular topic in this campaign to date. Obama’s approval rating on his handling of international affairs is unusually high, and with major international successes under his belt, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the subject has hardly proven a ripe ground for Republican criticism.
Few of the candidates have substantive international experience, and to some extent the debate Saturday night was an exercise in damage control and a chance to demonstrate a basic understanding of the facts and principles concerning American interests abroad.
Mitt Romney, the front-runner so far in the Republican race, vowed to stop Iran by a pre-emptive military strike if needed. Herman Cain said the only way to stop Iran was through economic means.
The businessman, whose campaign has been dogged by sexual harassment allegations recently, spoke about squeezing Tehran through sanctions and boosting Iran’s opposition movement.
Cain also provided one of the most striking moments when he argued in favor of the use of “enhanced interrogation” – including the now-rejected technique of waterboarding – in the fight against terrorism, a proposal that is likelyto outrage many who thought the era of American-sponsored torture was over.
Attempting to parse his answer by suggesting that he did “not agree with torture, period,” but instead supported “enhanced interrogation,” Cain said he would rely on the military to decide which techniques were acceptable.
Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said: “One thing you can know is if we elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
A report out this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency unveiled new evidence that Iran has been attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program, and the candidates found rare agreement in their assertions that Obama had mishandled the situation there.
“This is of course President Obama’s greatest failing from a foreign standpoint,” said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. “He recognized the gravest threat that America and the world faces was a nuclear Iran, and he didn’t do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly.”
Saying the president should have supported dissidents more and put in place more “crippling sanctions,” Romney concluded, “If all else fails, if after all of the work we’ve done, there’s nothing else we can do except military action, then of course you take military action.”
Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, came to Spartanburg, South Carolina, riding a new wave of support as the conservative alternative to the more moderate Mr Romney.
He declared he would launch covert operations within Iran.
Mr Gingrich said: “There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran, and a few ways to be stupid. The (Obama) administration skipped all the ways to be smart.”
Both Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Governor Rick Perry agreed with Cain, with Perry drawing sustained applause when declared, “This is war.” Of the use of waterboarding and other techniques, he added, “I will defend them until I die.”
The Republican presidential hopefuls also disagreed about the correct course in Afghanistan and the use of waterboarding as a means of interrogation.
On waterboarding, Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann, said they would reinstate the technique designed to simulate drowning.
On Afghanistan, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul both said it was time for US troops to come home after an engagement lasting 10 years.
During a discussion of Pakistan, Perry proposed that the U.S. temporarily reduce all foreign aid “to zero,” before re-evaluating whether to commit funds on a case-by-case basis. Perry was then asked if this proposition included Israel.
“Obviously Israel is a special ally, and my guess is we would be funding them at a high level,” Perry responded, “but everyone should come in at zero.”
Mitt Romney has been better than his rivals in presidential debates so often that it’s gotten to the point where a strong performance – as he had in this debate – feels almost ho-hum. Romney managed to be hawkish on issues like Iran while also leaving himself a little breathing room, playing to a Republican base that still views him skeptically. [via Huff Post, BBC and CBS]