The eight major Republican candidates running for president joined in a united attack against President Obama as commander in chief during a debate on Saturday, but at times differed sharply over key US foreign policies.
Foreign affairs had been a footnote in a race devoted to the economy until the debate when Republican presidential candidates sparred over how to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and whether to cut aid to Pakistan.
In the 90-minute debate at Wofford College in Spartansburg, South Carolina, the candidates expressed sharply opposing views on several issues that also included trade with China and whether to reinstate the practice of waterboarding terrorist suspects. The debate reflected deep divides over some of the nation's thorniest foreign policy questions and may have underscored the emerging narrative of the GOP nominating contest.
The leading Republican presidential candidates took hardline positions on US foreign policy, with Mitt Romney promising in the latest debate that "Iran will not have a nuclear weapon" if he is elected to the White House.
Most of the candidates also, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, President Barack Obama's former ambassador to Beijing, vowed get-tough policies against China, the Asian powerhouse they said was stealing US intellectual property, gaining trade advantage through currency manipulation and draining away American jobs.
While there were points of disagreement, the eight candidates at the debate were unanimous in their criticism of President Obama's handling of American foreign policy.
The issue of Iran's nuclear program proved to be one of the hot-button issues. Mr Romney's response was particularly striking when asked about Iran's nuclear program and a new UN report that backed US and Western allegations that Tehran was making progress on building a nuclear weapon. Iran has insisted its nuclear program is in the peaceful pursuit of energy and research, not weaponry.
Mr. Romney, like all the others called for stiffer economic sanctions again Tehran, but did not rule out possible military action. "It all else fails, if after all the work we've done there's nothing else we can do besides take military action, then of course you take military action," he said.
Herman Cain said he would not use the military but use more robust economic tools. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the US could shut down the Iranian central bank and bring the country to a standstill.
Newt Gingrich joined Mr. Romney with the hardest line. "There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran, and a few ways to be stupid. The administration skipped all the ways to be smart," said Mr. Gingrich, adding later that "you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon."
Pakistan was another point of contention. Rick Perry declared that "Pakistan is clearly sending us messages that they don't deserve our foreign aid," He added that if elected the foreign aid budget "for every country is going to start at zero dollars."
Herman Cain has blasted President Barack Obama for what he has called a lack of clarity defining the US's friends and foes. But when asked whether Pakistan is "friend or foe," he replied, "We don't know."
Longshot candidate, Rick Santorum, a former US senator, was adamantly opposed. “Pakistan is a nuclear power,” Mr. Santorum said. “We cannot be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend. They must be a friend.
While the Republicans were talking about foreign policy, Mr. Obama was working as America's diplomat in chief.
Mr. Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of a Pacific Rim economic summit in Honolulu, prodding them for support in reining back Iran's nuclear ambitions but without winning public endorsement from either man.
However, as much as the heated debate gave voters some insight into the Republican candidates’ opinions on America’s foreign policy, all of the candidates offered only incremental criticism of the Democrat, President Obama who has racked up a string of security successes, a stark contrast to the with-us-or-against-us politics Republicans have used since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If the debate made anything clear, it is that Republicans have lost-their go-to national security talking points, with Osama bin Laden’s body somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drawing to a close and President Obama expanding the use of unmanned spy planes to hunt terrorists.
“I don’t think there’s a very strong narrative,” said Tony Fratto, who served as a White House and Treasury Department spokesman during the Bush administration. “Is it a significant issue for a majority of Republican voters? No. It’s not.”
And it is not hard to understand why.
The sluggish economy is at the top of voters’ concerns and, thus, dominating the campaign conversation. National security and foreign policy issues have been all but absent from the Republican primary contest and, given that the 9 percent unemployment rate is showing no sign of significant improvement, it no doubt will shape the general election, as well.
Unlike four and eight years ago, a GOP heavily influenced by the Tea Party this year has found more traction criticizing President Obama for spending at home and it turns to that line of attack any chance it gets.
Report: Republican presidential rivals debate foreign policy [BBC, 13 Nov 2011]
Report: Up for Debate: Foreign Policy and Obama [The New York Times, 12 Nov 2011]
Analysis: GOP searches for voice in foreign policy [AP, 13 Nov 2011]