In their first debate focused solely on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, the Republican presidential candidates directed their attacks in one direction Saturday: at President Obama.
The commander-in-chief who directed the killings of two of the world's most-sought-after terrorists received almost no quarter from the field of White House aspirants on stage at a debate sponsored by National Journal and CBS News. The Republican candidates lambasted Obama for doing little to prevent a nuclear Iran and sending too much money abroad in foreign aid. Perhaps the strongest condemnation came from Mitt Romney, who said another term for the president guarantees it will build a nuclear bomb. The only exception to the negative blitz: Bachmann commended the president for the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden.
The intense criticism comes despite a string of foreign policy successes for Obama, from the killing of the 9/11 mastermind to the ousting of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. Of the eight candidates on stage, Bachmann was the only one to offer a hint of praise for the president. None indicated they thought Obama’s tenure has left the country safer.
Politically speaking, the Republican candidates have little choice but to condemn the president—conservative voters are so sharply critical of Obama they won’t tolerate much praise for him. But creating such a sharp contrast could put the eventual nominee in a difficult spot next year. Obama’s anti-terrorism policies are popular with the public -- including his decisions to withdraw troops from Iraq and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. Seventy-seven percent of the public – and 63 percent of Republicans – approve of the president’s decision to remove all troops from Iraq, according to a CBS News poll released on Friday.
Most of the pre-debate scrutiny focused on Perry after he committed one of the most cringe-worthy moments in presidential debate history. The Texas governor delivered a better, if still uneven, performance. As he did in the days after Wednesday night’s gaffe, he used humor to regain his footing, joking with moderator Scott Pelley about his nationally televised brain freeze. Still, the governor recalled memories of past poor performances when he offered little detail about withdrawing from Afghanistan, saying “we are discussing with our commanders” about the situation, and gave a rambling response about China’s “virtues.”
Otherwise, the front-running Romney delivered another strong performance, marked most for his stinging criticism of Obama and tough talk toward China. With the focus of the debate on foreign policy, Herman Cain was able to avoid more questions about the sexual harassment allegations facing him. Newt Gingrich probably propelled his recent momentum in the polls.
The debate, the first on network television, was held in the state that will host the third presidential primary on Jan. 21. Historically the winner of the Palmetto State's Republican primary has gone on to become the party's nominee. But voters and pundits in the state aren't sure they'll be able to maintain that record this time around.
Romney: If Obama re-elected, Iran will get nukes
Romney started the debate on a decidedly hawkish note, saying he would use the military to stop Iran from developing a nuclear missile if diplomatic and economic options fail.
“It's worth putting in place crippling sanctions,” Romney said. “It's worth working with the insurgents in country to encourage regime change in the country and if all else fails, if after all of the work we've done there's nothing else we can do beside take military action, then of course you take military action.”
The ex-Bay State governor has struggled to define his international vision during the campaign, vacillating between a hawkish agenda and one that focused on withdrawing America’s military presence abroad. But he emphasized a far more aggressive vision Saturday night, at least with Iran.
“If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” he said. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
Perry's first foray back onto the horse after a disaster in Wednesday night's debates had mixed results. He started strong: In his first answer of the night, Perry seemed eager to show some foreign policy expertise, detouring from a question on Afghanistan to offer a suggestion that none of his opponents provided in an earlier discussion of Iran. Perry said the Obama administration should sanction Iran's central bank as a way of crippling that country's economy and stymie the development of a nuclear weapon.
Asked about Afghanistan, Perry said “the mission must be completed,” and took direct aim at the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops, saying that the idea that we would give a timetable to our enemy is “irresponsible” leadership from the president.
But when asked specifically about his appraisal of the situation on the ground, Perry did not offer much in the way of detail, saying that “we are discussing with our commanders” about what is going on.
The Texas governor pivoted from a question about Pakistan to decry foreign aid – a criticism that resonates with Republicans eager to reduce spending overseas.
“It doesn't make any difference whether it's Pakistan or whether it's Afghanistan or whether it's India,” he said. “The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars – zero dollars.”
The line received huge applause from the audience – an important early affirmation for Perry as he tries to recover from last debate’s epic stumble. The governor was animated and spoke confidently, a stark contrast from earlier debates when he struggled to articulate his answers and seemed subdued.
“American soldiers’ lives are being put in jeopardy because of that country and the decisions that they're making and it's time for us as a country to say no to foreign aid to countries that don't support the United States of America,” he said.
But later, Perry offered a long, convoluted take on China, attempting to draw a parallel with the way Ronald Reagan handled the relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Here’s his full quote. We'll let readers try to figure it out:
“Listen, there are some people who made the statement that the 21st century is going to be the century of China and that, you know, we've had our time in the sunshine. I don't believe that. I don't believe that at all. As a matter of fact, you think back to the 1980s, and we faced a similar type of a situation with Russia. And Ronald Reagan said that Russia would end up on the ash heap of history, and he was right. I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues, virtues of honesty. And this whole issue of allowing cybersecurity to go on, we need to use all of our resources. The private sector working along with our government to really-- standing up to cyber-command in 2010 was a good start on that. But fighting this cyberwar I would suggest is one of the great issues that will face the next president of the united states and we must win.”
Huntsman: Why are we in Afghanistan?
Huntsman re-emphasized his role as the GOP field’s most iconoclastic foreign policy candidate -- with the exception of Ron Paul. In sharp contrast to his rivals, Huntsman argued that the country needs to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible so America can refocus it's gaze on other parts of the world.
“I say this nation's future is not Afghanistan. This nation's future is not Iraq,” said Huntsman, a former ambassador to China. “This nation's future is how prepared we are to meet the 21st century competitive challenges, that's economic and that's education and that's going to play out over the Asia-Pacific region, and we're either prepared for that reality or we're not."
“I don't want to be nation building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built,” he added.
Huntsman’s foreign policy experience has largely been overshadowed during the campaign, but he has made his mark for urging the country’s complete withdrawal from the Middle East. It’s a position that’s to the left even of President Obama.
Pakistan: “We don’t know.”
That was Cain’s take, when asked, point blank, if Pakistan is a friend or foe.
“Because Pakistan-- it's not clear because Pakistan is where Osama bin Laden was found and eliminated. Secondly, Pakistan has had a conversation with President Karzai from Afghanistan, and President Karzai has said that if the United States gets into a dispute with Pakistan, than Afghanistan is going to side with Pakistan,” Cain said.
When asked whether he would send troops into Pakistan, Romney took a cautious approach, saying “announcing on a stage like this” that we would throw troops into Pakistan could be “highly incendiary.”
Picking up on Perry's suggestion that foreign aid budgets should be zeroed out and reconsidered, Gingrich expressed exasperation over Pakistan's apparent harboring of bin Laden and said: "I think it's a pretty good idea to start at zero and sometimes stay there."
Others sharply dissented. Bachmann, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said: "I would not agree with that assessment to pull all foreign aid from Pakistan. I would reduce foreign aid to many, many countries but there's a problem because Pakistan has a nuclear weapon." Santorum was even more emphatic: "Pakistan must be a friend of the United States for the reason that Michele outlined," the former senator from Pennsylvania said. "Pakistan is a nuclear power and there are people in that country if they gain control of that country will create a situation equal to the situation that is now percolating in Iran. So we can't be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend."
The candidates offered some differing takes on torture/water boarding, with Bachmann saying she would be willing to use that, and Huntsman and Paul saying that water boarding constitutes torture.
“I would be willing to use water boarding,” said Bachmann. “I don't see it as torture."
“I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique,” said Cain.
“Water boarding is torture,” said Huntsman.
Paul concurred: “Water boarding is torture,” adding that it is also very impractical.
Obama no friend of Israel, Bachmann says
Bachmann went hard against the Obama administration, criticizing in no uncertain terms the relationship the administration has formed with Israel and arguing that the “table is being set” for a nuclear attack against the country.
“Israel looks at President Obama and they do not see a friend,” she said.
“This is a very dangerous time. If you look at Iran and if you look at Pakistan, and if you look at the link with Syria, because Iran is working through proxies like Syria, Hezbollah, through Hamas. It seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel,” she added.
Huntsman, Romney clash on China
Huntsman and Romney offered distinctly different takes on how to handle trade with China. Romney took a hard line against the rising superpower while Huntsman, a former ambassador to Beijing, urged a far more conciliatory stance.
Romney said Obama is letting China “run over” America, arguing that the country is a “currency manipulator.”
“We can't sit back and let China run all over us,” he said. “People will say you start a trade war. There is one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs and we're going to stand up to China.”
But Huntsman chastised Romney for urging a trade war, saying that’s not the best way to handle China.
“So what should we be doing?” he asked. “We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies within China. They're called the young people. They're called the Internet generation.”
It’s one of the sharpest contrasts yet during the debate. On paper, it’s a confrontation that could favor Huntsman: his expertise with the country gives him the credentials to take on Romney. Still, polls show many conservatives are eager for confrontation for China, making it a potentially advantageous issue for a presidential candidate who needs to shore up his credibility with the party's base.
Paul: Standing out, as usual
Ron Paul continues to be the most unreconstructed presence on stage amid the Republican presidential candidates.
As his rivals uniformly supported the practice of killing American citizens allied with foreign enemies, Paul blasted the idea the president should have that much power. He asked how the country can grant the government that much power when it can’t manage health care or the economy.
“We better look at that carefully before you automatically enforce something like that,” said Paul.
The Texas congressman consistently stood apart from the other candidates on stage throughout the night, reinforcing his view that the country is far too involved abroad. He mocked the idea the country is heading to war with Iran and excoriated water boarding as illegal torture.
“We’re at war against a tactic,” Paul said. “Therefore, there’s no limit to it.”
Obeying the 11th commandment
For the second debate in a row (after a notably bickersome one three weeks ago in Las Vegas), the presidential candidates appear to be following former President Ronald Reagan's admonishment against criticizing a fellow Republican. Gingrich passed on an opportunity to double down with a shot at Romney: When asked whether he would like to evaluate the ex-governor’s ability to think outside the box, Gingrich responded with a curt, “No. No.” He then pivoted to a criticism of Obama.
Gingrich had said on Friday that Romney was a competent manager but expressed doubt he is capable of changing Washington, as one of the moderators noted.
His tack was consistent with the refrain we heard from almost everyone on stage tonight: the president is the main target of criticism.
Want to stay ahead of the curve? Sign up for National Journal’s AM & PM Must Reads. News and analysis to ensure you don’t miss a thing.