The Republican presidential candidates met in South Carolina for a foreign-policy debate last night. One thing was clear: CBS’s decision not to broadcast the last 30 minutes of the debate (putting it instead on an almost unwatchable online feed) and putting the pompous, interruption-prone Scott Pelley in the moderator’s chair made for a downright annoying debate.
Pelley intruded, smirked and argued with the candidates, getting slapped down by Mitt Romney for calling time prematurely and by Newt Gingrich, who explained to him that killing a terrorist engaged in combat against the United States is not illegal but is outside criminal law.
On the positive side, Romney and Gingrich had strong outings, and with the exception of a gaffe on aid to Israel, Rick Perry had his best debate outing, looking relaxed and raising some well-placed points.
As we have come to expect, Romney was unflappable. On Iran he explained the president’s failure to back the Green Movement. He called Obama’s inability to halt Iran’s nuclear program his “great failing,” and confirmed that, if other measures failed, he would be willing to use military force to halt its nuclear weapons program. On Afghanistan he rapped the president for his troop withdrawal schedule.
On the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, he declared that of course the president has the authority to take out someone who has taken up arms against the United States. He then went into a short riff that the 21st century must be the American century. It was one of his finer moments in the campaign.
Finally, on China he was, as we have seen before, quite aggressive in stating his willingness to use the World Trade Organization and to condition access to our markets to halting theft of our intellectual property and unfair trade practices. And he came down clearly on the side of trying to help people in Syria oust their dictator.
Perry plainly had done some homework. He was the only one to suggest that we could go after Iran’s central bank right now. He talked about his command of the Texas National Guard and his own military experience, making the case that he’s familiar with and a good judge of military talent. He too stood up for completing the mission in Afghanistan and argued that China would falter unless it dropped communism and acquired new “virtues.” Overall, he seemed alert and comfortable. Perhaps now that he is back in the pack, the pressure is less crippling.
But he got tangled up in knots by a cheap point about foreign aid. To begin with, he suggested that aid was the underlying issue with regard to Pakistan, which is highly questionable. And then he pronounced that “absolutely, every country would start at zero on aid.” Asked specifically, he said that included Israel. Now, they’d probably get a hefty amount, he added. Well, oops. As fast as you could say “damage control,” the Perry campaign was out with an e-mail explaining how he was committed to Israel (which he is). But why treat Israel as any other supplicant? And really, as a budgetary matter, foreign aid is insignificant. Perry no doubt would be a warm friend to Israel, but the gaffe was the sort of rookie mistake one might expect of a governor lacking foreign-policy nuance.
Romney, in response to a question on Pakistan, suggested that country aid should start at zero, subject to justification for further monies. After the debate Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul e-mailed me, “Governor Romney was talking about Pakistan when he said the foreign aid should start each year at zero. Mitt Romney firmly believes that the United States must continue supporting Israel and increase military aid to our strongest friend and ally.”
Gingrich was very tough on Iran and terrorism, and had a delightful moment in putting Pelley in his place. But his pomposity often gets in his way. We have to completely rethink Afghanistan, he intoned. It’s very complicated. But, what does he think? What would he do differently? Oh, that’s part of a much bigger discussion. He’d chop off all aid to Pakistan, he said. (On this issue, Rep. Michele Bachmann was the grown-up and Gingrich the bumper-sticker pol.)
When invited to explain why he thinks Romney is merely a good manager and and not a change agent, Gingrich declined. His willingness to sign onto Perry’s notion about reducing all foreign aid to nothing didn’t show him to be a deep thinker. This is an easy applause line, the sort that Gingrich would normally say is beneath him. To be frank, the assessment of many that he “won” the debate reflects the ease with which many are beguiled by Gingrich’s professorial tone. What he says is far less impressive than how he says it.
Aside from CBS, the other big loser in the debate was, unsurprisingly, Herman Cain, who looked uncomfortable, if not pained. He would support the Green Movement but not provide military assistance. On the other hand, if need be, we would go to war to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. His answers on Pakistan and on waterboarding amounted to “ask the generals.” He was at a loss to explain how he’d assess their advice. At one point Cain seemed to suggest that we should have backed Hosni Mubarak as the Egyptians demanded his ouster. He inspired no confidence and gave those disinclined to dump him, based on the sexual harassment allegations, a alternative, substantive reason to drop him: He’s unprepared to be commander in chief.
Bachmann (R-Minn.) had a surprisingly strong night. She and Rick Santorum were the only ones to give a sophisticated answer on Pakistan, explaining why it would be an error to yank all aid. She was crystal-clear on waterboarding, maintaining it is not torture and arguing that it was effective in extracting information. She observed that, in prohibiting waterboarding, President Obama was acting “as though we decided to lose the war.” She made the cogent point that, as things stand, we have no CIA interrogation. And she defended military spending, while committing to reform of the procurement system.
Santorum was solid as well but could not resist the urge to whine once more about his placement on one wing of the stage (a function of his low poll numbers).When he sticks to substance, on Iran and Pakistan, he comes across as knowledgeable and steady.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) prattled on about withdrawing our troops and the illegality of striking terrorists, accusing the United States of torture along the way. It is in this area that the degree of his looniness shines through. Jon Huntsman (was that a maroon suit?) was only marginally better. Neither are going anywhere in this primary race.
The debate did not touch on a number of topics, including human rights, our own hemisphere and Russia. In the Nov. 22 American Enterprise Institute/Heritage Foundation debate, one can only hope the moderators will be less obnoxious and that they introduce more topics.
As for this one, it likely didn’t change many minds. If you were growing wary of Cain, you’d probably feel more so after this outing. If you’d thought Romney was the most presidential, there was nothing to change your mind. And as for Gingrich, it will be interesting to see who calls him out on his empty phrases and insistence that it’s all so very complicated. Okay, Professor Gingrich, so what’s your answer? Snarl. Hrrumph. Not exactly presidential, is it?