Saturday night’s CBS/National Journal Republican “Commander-in-Chief” primary debate sharply highlighted divisions in GOP foreign policy thinking. Amid the relentless platitudes and occasional conspiracy theory, the candidates offered a mix of George W. Bush administration-style neoconservatism (even when they don’t realize it) — the same movement that brought us the Iraq War — with a splash of old Republican restraint. “[M]ost of them did better than I expected in this debate,” wrote Foreign Policy’s Dan Drezner, adding, “I didn’t expect much.” Foreign policy, it turns out, doesn’t fit that well into the “pithy sound-bites” that GOPers seem to rely on. The candidates were quite happy, with the debate over, to get back to the usual fare of blaming “liberal mainstream media elites” for all their problems.
IRAN: The candidates — save perpetual outlier Rep. Ron Paul (TX) — talked tough on Iran. Newt Gingrich called for a covert war against Iran, something he’s been doing since 1995 — never mind that announcing it defeats the purpose. According to the Associated Press, “It is widely believed that the Obama administration has been covertly attacking the Iranian nuclear program.” But the GOP field did distinguish themselves with bellicose rhetoric, with only fringe candidate Paul, who wants “friendship” and trade with Iran, speaking out against military action and sanctions. Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who have both looked hawkish on Iran, affirmed that they’d go to war to prevent Iran from getting nukes (though strikes could actually only delay the program), leading an Iranian-American group to call their positions “shameful.” Romney, in particular, has hawkish advisers on Iran (who also pushed for the Iraq War), one of whom called for war last week and another that advocates for a controversial Iranian exile group listed as terrorists by the State Department.
TORTURE: In 2008, both parties’ candidates rejected waterboarding as “torture” (which the then-GOP candidate John McCain reaffirmed today), but that didn’t stop several contenders in this year’s GOP race from wanting to revive the controversial interrogation method. Gaffe-prone Herman Cain, who has compared foreign policy to making pizza, said he does “not agree with torture, period,” but would nonetheless allow waterboarding. “I don’t see it as torture,” he said. Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN), too, would re-institute waterboarding, alleging bizarrely that Obama is “allowing the A.C.L.U. to run the C.I.A.” Of course, the American Civil Liberties Union has struck an adversarial posture toward many Obama security policies.
AFGHANISTAN: Nowhere was GOP disarray more sharply outlined than on the debate about the Afghanistan war. Jon Huntsman wants to withdraw; Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry were critical of a timetable for withdrawal; Bachmann cribbed Bill Kristol and made the case that a just a few more months of war would make all the difference; and Romney said — against the advice of the top brass to whom GOP candidates insist they would pledge fealty — that he wouldn’t negotiate with the Taliban.
FOREIGN AID: The only controversy to break out of Saturday’s debate was about foreign aid — not the movement to cut it down, which is uncontroversial in GOP campaigns (though notably not actually in GOP governance, where Republicans have repeatedly increased foreign aid), but solely whether or not Israel should be singled out to receive bountiful U.S. support. Perry set off the firestorm of commentary by saying that “every country would start at zero” foreign aid and have to make its case for funding — and clarified upon request that this indeed included Israel. Prominent advocates for Israel responded by giving Perry’s comment the now-infamous label of being an “oops.” Romney initially agreed with Perry, but then quickly backtracked after the debate.
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