On Foreign Policy, the Republicans Fumble Their Way

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

The 2012 Republican presidential candidates prepare before the presidential debate at Wofford College, November 12, 2011 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The debate was focused on national security and foreign policy.

After a long series of Republican debates that focused almost exclusively, and rather predictably, on domestic policy–repeal ObamaCare? check. No new taxes? Check. Stimulus failed? Check–last night’s CBS debate devoted to foreign policy and national security in Spartanburg, S.C., was a breath of fresh air–an occasion for some real policy disagreement, and a revealing window into a party with a clear domestic policy dogma, but which is still fumbling its way to a coherent national security vision.

(MORE: How Did They Do? Mark Halperin Grades the Debate)

Take Afghanistan. The Republicans were in agreement that Barack Obama doesn’t sufficiently heed his generals’ advice–Michele Bachmann complained that he “dithered” before sending an inadequate 30,000 troops there in 2009. Never mind that Bob Woodward persuasively documented a process in which the new president was boxed in by his generals. But Afghanistan is a tricky topic; the war is broadly unpopular but no one (save Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, who counsel fast exits) wants to be to the left of President Obama on such a fundamental national security question. Mitt Romney, for instance, hit Obama’s plan to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops in September of next year, rather than after the fighting season has ended. (Obama was “perhaps looking at the calendar of the election,” Romney said.) Only at the very end of his Obama-bashing answer did Romney slip in the key point: that he agrees with the president’s core goal of leaving by 2014, calling that “the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces.” Rick Perry, meanwhile, staked our turf to Romney’s right, insisting that “[t]he mission must be completed there,” without mention of any timetable. “The idea that we will have wasted our treasure and the lives of young Americans to not secure Afghanistan is not appropriate,” Perry said. If the Texas governor should ever achieve a one-on-one matchup with Romney, that could blossom into a fascinating, and very important, policy debate.

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On Iran, the GOP candidates strained to find ways to attack President Obama when in fact their positions aren’t so different from his policies. Several said they would reserve the right to use military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, even though Barack Obama has always done just that. Mitt Romney said Iran is Obama’s “greatest failing from a foreign policy standpoint,” complaining that Obama hasn’t done more to help the country’s dissident Green Movement and that he hasn’t implemented “crippling sanctions.” The first score is debatable, but it’s hard to imagine how the U.S. could have pushed tougher sanctions through the U.N. than it already has. Newt Gingrich chimed in to say that Obama has pursued “dumb” policies towards Tehran, then proceeded to offer a list of “smart” policies–covert operations like sabotage and killing nuclear scientists; working in lockstep with Israel; plus a vague “absolute strategic program” of pressure–which bear a striking resemblance to the “dumb” policies Newt had just sneered at. Apart from some saber-rattling on the margins, it remains unclear how Republicans would handle Iran differently from Obama. But that didn’t stop Romney–who for some reason is rarely grilled about the fact that he has no real foreign policy experience–from insisting that “if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”

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Pakistan offered more nuance. Asked whether the country should be considered a friend or a foe Herman Cain, said it’s impossible to know, and that the relationship should be “re-evaluated.” Alas, when pressed for specifics on what factors he would weigh, Cain delivered an answer of pathetic banality, culminating with the declaration that “We need a regional strategy in that area of the world, such that all of our allies, wor– we work together in order to come up with those things that would be mutually beneficial to everyone. Those are the questions that need to be asked.” Oy. Rick Perry was more forceful, arguing that Pakistan is, in effect, an enemy. “[T]hey don’t deserve our foreign aid that we’re getting, because they’re not bein’ honest with us. American soldiers’ lives are being put at jeopardy because of that country and the decisions that they’re make,” Perry said. (Perry came armed with a new, crowd-pleasing talking point: that foreign aid should be completely re-examined; Perry insisted that even Israel should have to justify every dollar it receives from the U.S.) And Newt Gingrich went so far as to assert, against the publicly available evidence (though not implausibly), that Pakistan “hid” bin Laden in Abbottabad. Yet in one of the night’s more interesting moments, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann piped up in defense of our relationship with Islamabad. Pakistan, Santorum said, “must be a friend of the United States.”Arguably the most important country of all–China–produced frustratingly little discussion. But it’s clear that this policy is a GOP work in progress as well. Romney restated his provocative call for a much tougher posture towards China’s economic policies, including challenging its currency valuation at the World Trade Organization. “People say, ‘Well, you’ll start a trade war,'” Romney said. “There’s one goin’ on right now, folks. They’re stealing our jobs. And we’re gonna stand up to China.” Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, counseled that a real trade war would look far worse, particularly for American manufacturers. A better policy, Huntsman argued, would be to engage with China’s younger, networked generation, which he said includes 80 million bloggers “bringing about change, the likes of which is gonna take China down.” The choice between outright confrontation with China, risking a trade war, and a subtler campaign of engagement that seeks to replicate something like a Beijing Spring has enormous consequences. It’s not clear that the other GOP candidates have fully though this though, as evidenced by Rick Perry’s vacuous assertion that “the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues.” But unlike the paint-by-numbers domestic policy debates, of which there will be many more, last night’s foreign policy forum was a reminder that Republican foreign policy remains a work in progress on several issues of incalculable importance.Note: Your faithful correspondent was only able to watch the 60-minute televised portion of the debate. Here’s a transcript of the final 30 minutes, broadcast online only, though precious few people saw it.

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