The Wofford College Debate

The CBS News / National Journal GOP debate at Wofford College in South Carolina focused on foreign policy, although a few domestic issues touching upon international and military affairs found their way into the discussion.  The importance of the U.S. national debt as a national security issue was generally agreed upon, with Jon Huntsman providing a chilling countdown of debt-to-GDP ratios for various European basket cases, and pointing out that America really isn’t all that far behind them.  (Huntsman’s prescribed annual spending limit of 19% GDP was high for my taste, but he’s right that it needs to be pushed well beneath its current unsustainable level.)

Rick Perry had a good night, joking about his infamous “flash crash” at the previous debate a couple of times, and inadvertently coining the nifty term “forewithal” to describe France and Germany’s ability to cope with the European debt crisis without American assistance.  Perry’s portfolio, coming into the 2012 presidential campaign, involved using his record as governor of Texas to emphasize domestic policy strength, but he was actually much more confident and assured when talking about foreign policy tonight.  That might be due to intense preparation because he knows bad debate performances have been killing him. 

The importance of cutting foreign aid to balancing the budget can be overstated, since it represents a relatively small portion of the titanic federal balance sheet, but that doesn’t mean spraying cash around the world with a fire hose is a good idea.  Perry described a “start at zero” approach to foreign aid, which Newt Gingrich went on to endorse, saying that every country should be forced to justify every penny of aid it receives from the United States.  When asked if this would include Israel, Perry said yes, but made it clear they’d have a much easier time getting those foreign aid pennies than, say, Pakistan.  He said Pakistan is currently under the control of its intelligence service, which he does not trust.

Interestingly, both Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum strongly disagreed, emphasizing the importance of taking all necessary measures to keep Pakistan as an ally, due to the possible exposure of their nuclear weapons to al-Qaeda.  Pakistan is a tough question to answer – really, all foreign policy questions are Gordian knots these days, and you’re not allowed to cut them, but Pakistan is especially tough. 

Iran is another hard case.  Mitt Romney and Herman Cain advocated assistance (of a non-military nature) to the Iranian opposition, and using sanctions – including the economic blow to Iran that would be delivered by American energy independence – to cool their nuclear ambitions.  Newt Gingrich was a little more aggressive, hoping that American intelligence had a hand in all those computer viruses and dead nuclear scientists that have been popping up in Iran.  Santorum professed similar hopes.  Gingrich also said he believes a “Ronald Reagan / John Paul II / Margaret Thatcher” strategy could topple the moribund Iranian theocracy, much as it did the Soviet Union.  Gauging the true strength of the Iranian opposition is difficult, so it’s tough to say how realistic such hopes are, especially measured against the ticking doomsday clock of Iranian nuclear weapons research.

Most of the candidates felt Obama was making a big mistake in withdrawing from Afghanistan so quickly, with Romney specifically accusing the President of making his military decisions “with one eye on the campaign calendar,” and declaring he would not negotiate with the Taliban because “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”  Rick Santorum also emphasized the importance of ensuring the Taliban is a “neutered” force.  Perry described Obama’s Afghan policy as “dangerous,” while Bachmann called it “fatal.” 

By contrast, Jon Huntsman felt our “key objectives” in Afghanistan had been reached, and it was time for us to “come home.”  He still pushes his “nation building at home” talking point, which is like fingernails on a blackboard.  I’m not sure where he thinks he’d get the money for that “nation building” if he’s going to cap government spending at 19% GDP, given that the United States is far larger than any of the countries where nation-building has been tried, usually with rather depressing results.  Maybe he’s really optimistic about GDP growth.

Herman Cain still speaks of hiring a top-shelf set of foreign policy advisors and carefully considering their recommendations before fulfilling his duty as Commander-in-Chief to make the tough decisions.  That’s a good general philosophy, and he’s far more comfortable with foreign policy issues than he was at the beginning of the campaign, but a few more specifics about his international intentions would be helpful.  He seemed largely comfortable with most of Romney and Gingrich’s positions.

Nothing anyone says to a Ron Paul supporter will change their opinion of his make-the-world-go-away foreign policy fantasies, so to dispense with him quickly: he thinks the Iranian nuclear threat is some kind of media hype, opposes pretty much every aspect of the War on Terror (and World War II, for that matter) and was quick to tell terrorists how they could be completely safe from him, since he strongly disapproves of attacking them when they’re in the company of family members.  He did have a good point about the importance of involving Congress in military decisions, but otherwise he displays a horrifying combination of ignorance and naivete about the enemies of the United States. 

If you can convince yourself that terrorists will ignore us if we just ignore them, you’re pretty much got the Ron Paul national security stance down pat.  It’s one thing to criticize particular operations or tactics, but Paul is reciting position papers he wrote thirty years ago, and ignoring everything that happened since he wrote them.  If you want to see that Obama second term arrive in a landslide, imagine Paul self-destructing during a debate where Obama politely asks him if killing bin Laden was a good idea.

Paul aside, there was a good bit of disagreement about conducting the War on Terror.  Cain and Bachmann supported a return to enhanced interrogation techniques, with Bachmann specifically mentioning waterboarding, and declaring that Obama is “letting the ACLU run the CIA.”  Huntsman, by contrast, maintained waterboarding is torture, and the use of such techniques diminishes U.S. standing in the world.  Gingrich sternly emphasized the difference between prosecuting criminal offenses and fighting a war… and when I say “sternly emphasized,” I mean “took CBS anchor Scott Pelley to school and scheduled him for detention afterward.”

Romney said it was “absolutely appropriate” for President Obama to target U.S. citizens, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, but he and Gingrich both castigated Obama in particularly strong terms for botching the “Arab Spring.”  Gingrich worried that it was becoming “the anti-Christian Spring,” describing the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt, whose fortunes have worsened considerably.

There was a sharp difference between Romney and Huntsman over handling China.  Romney wants to make China “play by the rules” to earn access to U.S. markets, particularly with regard to their involvement in cyber-espionage and currency manipulation (activities Rick Perry said would leave them “on the ash heap of history”.)  Huntsman warned against provoking a trade war, and instead counts on generational change bringing China more into alignment with U.S. interests, if we improve our rapport with the younger Chinese generation.  The problem with that is that demographics are making China older. 

Unsurprisingly, there was general agreement that Obama’s foreign policy was sorely lacking, with the criticism somewhat more muted from Huntsman.  On balance, I thought Perry, Romney, Gingrich, and Bachmann had the strongest evening, with significant areas of agreement between them.  Perry was more relaxed and confident than some of his previous appearances.  Romney had a good feel for the inadequacies of Obama foreign policy.  Gingrich was thoughtful and displayed his usual mastery of history.  Bachmann had a swift and thorough answer ready for every question, and I suspect viewers were favorably impressed by her level of preparation. 

Foreign policy is a bit less important than domestic issues to voters at the moment (witness the awful scheduling of this debate, which CBS didn’t even carry in its entirety on television) and it’s a tricky subject at the best of times, since the U.S. president obviously doesn’t control the behavior of foreign countries.  Republican primary voters are probably looking for an impression that candidates have a solid understanding of complex global issues, coupled with persuasive ability, which is an important component of diplomacy. 

It doesn’t feel as if anyone really hurt themselves tonight, including Ron Paul, whose foreign policy is baked very thoroughly into his campaign cake.  If Herman Cain was going to develop a broad foreign-policy expertise through intensive study, tonight would have been a good time to display it.  He didn’t, so I suspect he’ll probably find himself in about the same position with voters tomorrow that he held yesterday.