Republican White House hopefuls criticized President Obama’s handling of Iran, Afghanistan and the Arab Spring during a debate Saturday night in South Carolina. It was the first of this year’s debates in which foreign policy was the dominant topic.
Although the candidates aimed most of their firepower at the sitting president, the forum did expose some fault lines within the Republican ranks.
It was billed as the “Commander in Chief” debate, and while Obama earns higher marks for his role as commander in chief than he does overall, Republican hopefuls found plenty to criticize, beginning with Iran.
Nuclear Capability In Iran
A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this past week ratcheted up concern that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called that the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy failure.
“If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Romney suggests the White House should do more to support Iran’s political opposition and impose even tougher economic sanctions. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum wants to go further.
“We should be working with Israel right now to do what they did in Syria, what they did in Iraq, which is take out that nuclear capability before the next explosion we hear in Iran is a nuclear one,” he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich added the U.S. should use covert operatives to go after Iran’s nuclear scientists.
“There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb, and the administration skipped all the ways to be smart,” he said.
Differences Show Through
After his campaign got off to a slow start, Gingrich is enjoying a resurgence lately. A new CBS poll shows him running neck-and-neck with Romney, just behind the Herman Cain.
On Friday, Gingrich called Romney a “good manager,” but not someone who could fundamentally change Washington. Asked to elaborate last night, Gingrich wouldn’t take the bait.
“We’re here tonight talking to the American people about why every single one of us is better than Barack Obama,” he said, saying that was the topic he’d like to focus on.
But even though the Republicans largely refrained from attacking one another Saturday night, some clear differences emerged — on the issue of torture, for example.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann defended harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
“I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country,” she said, “and I also would like to say that today, under Barack Obama, he is allowing the [American Civil Liberties Union] to run the CIA.”
But Texas Rep. Ron Paul called waterboarding “torture.”
“It’s illegal under international law and under our law. It’s also immoral, and it’s also very impractical,” he said. “There’s no evidence that you really get reliable evidence.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also rejected waterboarding. While some of his fellow Republicans criticize Obama for pulling troops out of Afghanistan too quickly, Huntsman called for an even deeper drawdown.
“I don’t want to be nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built,” he said.
Filling In The Gaps
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is still smarting from the previous debate, when he was unable to remember one of three federal departments he wants to eliminate. CBS newsman Scott Pelley asked Perry during the debate how that streamlining would affect oversight of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
Perry suffered no serious memory lapses Saturday, and he mostly stuck to familiar talking points, even if they bore little relation to the questions. Asked why Pakistan seems to be playing a double-game with the United States, Perry instead talked about reducing foreign aid.
“The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars. Zero dollars,” he said, “and then we’ll have a conversation.”
Perry later clarified that U.S. aid to Israel would likely be maintained.
Frontrunner Herman Cain has been frank in the past about the limits of his foreign policy knowledge, arguing that’s less important than his ability to create jobs. More than once during the debate, Cain said he’d defer to military leaders and other advisers on questions like using force to clear out terrorist safe havens in Pakistan.
“That is a decision that I would make after consulting with the commanders on the ground, our intelligence sources, after having discussions with Pakistan,” he said. “Pakistan is one of the nine nations that [have] a nuclear weapon.”
Cain remains at or near the top in national opinion polls, but when the Democratic National Committee issued their response to Saturday night’s debate, all of their critiques were aimed at Romney.