Spartanburg, South Carolina
After a series of debates in which foreign policy and national security issues received little attention, Republicans spent Saturday evening here debating everything from the Arab Spring and Pakistan to foreign aid and China currency manipulation. The candidates largely agreed on the big issues – Obama is bad, terrorists are dangerous, Pakistan is a conundrum – but some interesting differences among the leading candidates surfaced over the course of the 90 minutes on stage and in the spin room afterwards.
Herman Cain had a difficult night, his halting and hesitant answers seemed to reflect a lack of depth on foreign policy issues. That might be understandable for someone who has spent his life in business, but it matters. In the first question of the night, Cain was asked about the recent IAEA report on Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program. The question conveyed a sense of urgency but Cain answered with policy prescriptions more appropriate for addressing a long-term problem – changing U.S. energy policy, aiding the Iranian opposition and tightening sanctions. Cain effectively ruled out military action. “The only way to stop them is through economic means,” he said.
Mitt Romney provided a dramatic contrast – on that answer and over the course of the night. If he came into this debate wanting to look strong and resolute – a good bet – he succeeded. On Iran, Romney, like Cain, mentioned sanctions and the Iranian opposition when asked about steps he would take to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But he made clear that those were merely first steps. “If all else fails, of course you take military action,” he said, lamenting the diminished meaning of “unacceptable” in U.S. threats against Iran. “If we elect Barack Obama, Iran will have nuclear weapons. If you elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me, they will not.”
Later, when CBS anchor Scott Pelley asked if the president has the right to order the assassination of an American citizen working with al Qaeda, Romney did not hesitate or equivocate. “Absolutely,” he said, describing the U.S. handling of Anwar al Awlaki. “In this case, this is an individual who had aligned himself with a—with a group that declared war on the United States of America. And if there's someone that's going to join with a group like al Qaeda that declares war on America, and we're in a—in a war with that entity, then, of course, anyone who is bearing arms with that entity is fair game for the United States of America.”
That question—killing an American citizen—provided one of the debate’s liveliest moments when Newt Gingrich once again went after the debate moderator—justifiably, this time. Pelley asked if a President Gingrich would sign a death warrant “for an American citizen overseas who you believe is a terrorist suspect.”
“Well, he’s not a terrorist suspect,” Gingrich corrected. “He's a person who was found guilty under review of actively seeking the death of Americans.”
Pelley, who moments earlier had scolded the audience for booing the candidates, challenged Gingrich.
“Not found guilty by a court, sir.”
“He was found guilty by a panel that looked at it and reported to the president,” Gingrich responded.
“Well, that's extrajudicial,” said Pelley. “It's not the rule of law.”
“It is the rule of law,” Gingrich responded. “That is explicitly false. It is the rule of law. If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant. You have none of the civil liberties of the United States. You cannot go to court. No, let me be -- let me be very clear about this on two levels. There is a huge gap here that, frankly, far too many people get confused over. Civil defense, criminal defense is a function of being within the American law. Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law. It is an act of war and should be dealt with as an act of war, and the correct thing in an act of war is to kill people who are trying to kill you.”
Rick Santorum, who had limited opportunities to answer questions, agreed with Gingrich. “Well said. Well said.”
Rick Perry, who seemed much more relaxed on stage as a long-shot than he ever did as frontrunner, tried to make foreign aid an issue. He said the United States should zero out the foreign aid budget and review all recipients for renewal. And in response to a question, he said he would include Israel in that review.
It was a simple statement of principle, not a decision to cut off foreign aid to Israel. There is no doubt a Perry administration would restore – and probably increase – U.S. aid to Israel. He said as much, predicting, “my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level.” But the comment immediately struck many journalists here as newsworthy.
Romney said: “I agree with Governor Perry. Start everything at zero.” But his campaign later told reporters that Romney was talking about Pakistan and did not mean to suggest that he’d start over with Israel.