“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.