In GOP Debate, Iran Takes Center Stage

Most candidates rally behind regime change, possible military action.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates called for supporting the Iranian opposition and military action if necessary to stop a nuclear-armed Iran during Saturday’s debate on national security and foreign policy. The candidates were mostly united on Iran, while there were differences on foreign aid to Pakistan, withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and a possible trade war with China.

Herman Cain gave an excellent answer about Iran in the opening of the debate. He called for energy independence, supporting the Iranian opposition and deploying Aegis warships with anti-ballistic missile capabilities in the Middle East. However, he stumbled throughout the rest of the debate and offered general answers with few specifics. When asked if Pakistan is a friend or foe, he said “We don’t know.”

Cain’s worst moment was when he was asked about torture. He nervously looked at the camera and after a long delay, said he doesn’t believe in torture but would let military commanders decide how torture is defined. He also struggled with an answer about knowing when to overrule advisors by saying he’d have the right advisors around him. He criticized Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring, specifically the call on Yemeni President Saleh to step down.

Mitt Romney performed well. He said that Iran will get nuclear weapons if President Obama is re-elected and that we must support “insurgents” pursuing regime change, enact crippling sanctions and make a credible threat of military action. He said that the U.S. needs to work with Turkey and Saudi Arabia to pressure Syrian President Assad, but as I've written, Turkey is favoring the Islamists among the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia would do the same.

Romney gave the best answers on China. He said he’d label China as a currency manipulator and report it to the World Trade Organization. When criticized for advocating a trade war, he responded, “We’re already in a trade war.”  He was tough on Obama over the war in Afghanistan, but the policy he advocated was very similar. He endorsed Obama’s timeline to bring all forces home by 2014, but said it was wrong to bring home the additional troops sent as part of the “surge” in September. Instead, he’d bring them home in December—a mere three months difference.

Newt Gingrich had an excellent night. He said that there are lots of smart ways to pressure Iran and relatively few dumb ways, and the Obama Administration skipped past the smart ways. He said he’d “maximize covert operations”  to kill nuclear scientists, damage their nuclear systems and do everything possible short of war to bring about regime change. He was the sole candidate to make regime change in Iran his stated objective, saying he’d adopt the successful strategy Reagan used against the Soviet Union.

He won a huge applause when he warned about the Arab Spring becoming an “Anti-Christian Spring” and said Christian minorities need to be protected. He said more should be done to undermine the Assad regime, and criticized the Obama Administration for betraying Egyptian President Mubarak, who he praised as a fantastic ally. He argued that the war in Afghanistan will never succeed unless Pakistan and Iran are addressed.

Gingrich’s best moment was when he forcefully responded to a moderator by saying that someone who wages war on America like Anwar al-Awlaki is an enemy combatant and joining a terrorist group is an act of war. “In war, you kill people who are trying to kill you,” he explained. The audience went wild.

Ron Paul was predictable. The comment that brought the most positive reaction was when he lashed out at supporters of waterboarding, torture and the assassination of al-Awlaki. He expressed his opposition to an attack on Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons and downplayed the threat from Iran, saying the hysteria reminded him of the propaganda in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Rick Perry had his usual inarticulate moments but had several where he shined. On Iran, he called for “shutting down” the Iranian economy and sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank. He was the sole candidate to bring attention to preparing for cyber war and predicted that “Communist China” will “enter the ash heap of history” if it didn’t change.

Perry’s biggest moment was when he said he’d start off all foreign aid at “zero dollars”  and then move forward in giving to the countries that deserve it. He won a huge applause for calling for an end to aid to Pakistan in retaliation for their help. He was criticized by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum for that stance, but Newt Gingrich supported him.

Perry had an endearing moment when the moderator mentioned that he’d abolish the Department of Energy. Perry quickly interrupted to say, “Glad you remembered.” The moderator responded, “I’ve had a long time to think about it.”  Perry finished the exchange with a humorous, “Me, too!”

Rick Santorum was the sole candidate to call for the U.S. to help Israel bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. He said that he disagrees with Newt Gingrich’s approach because there it will take too long. He also mentioned how the Bush Administration opposed his efforts to support the Iranian opposition. He was performing well but then criticized Perry for his confrontational attitude towards Pakistan. He described the Pakistani government as an ally that the U.S. needs and that allies need to “work through their problems.” When asked what he’d do if a Pakistani nuclear weapon got loose, he said he’d try to cooperate with the Pakistani ISI intelligence service.

Michele Bachmann spoke in detail about Afghanistan and appeared the most knowledgeable on the topic. She hit Obama for declining to provide the 40,000 additional soldiers as the commanders requested, instead only sending 30,000. She condemned the timeline for withdrawal and warned that the “table is set”  for a nuclear war against Israel. “Obama will stand with Occupy Wall Street but he won’t stand with Israel,” she was applauded for saying. She said that “it’s like we’ve decided we want to lose”  and claimed that the ACLU now runs the CIA.

Jon Huntsman was the only candidate besides Ron Paul to call for a speedier withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan than Obama is planning. He said he’d leave behind a small force to train Afghan security forces and gather intelligence. He opposed torture and waterboarding and criticized Romney for advocating a trade war with China. Instead, Huntsman said, we should reach out to the Chinese people, saying that 500 million Chinese use the Internet and 80 million are bloggers.

Overall, Newt Gingrich had the best night and Herman Cain had the worst and this was one of Rick Perry’s best debates. The next debate is hosted by CNN, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute on November 22 and will also be about national security and foreign policy. Get ready for round two.

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