National Security: Comparing the Candidates

Differences over Afghanistan, Syria & Pakistan aired.

The Republican presidential candidates had their final national security-specific debate on November 22. The contenders respectfully disagreed on leaving Afghanistan, military action in Syria, foreign aid to Pakistan and illegal immigration. The debate gave national security voters the most detailed presentation yet of what each candidate has to offer.

The biggest sparks flew over the Patriot Act, where Newt Gingrich had his stand-out moment. Ron Paul used the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh as proof that treating terrorists as criminals is a workable approach. Gingrich replied, “Timothy McVeigh succeeded,” paused and continued, “That’s the whole point.”

“I don’t want a law that says after we lose a major American city, we sure are going to find you. I want a law that says if you try to take out an American city, we’re going to stop you,” he said.

On the Patriot Act, Herman Cain said he supported it but would be open to revisions. Ron Paul unsurprisingly opposes it. Jon Huntsman refused to take a stance, only saying that we must work “very carefully” in handling civil liberties and that the U.S. must uphold its values.

The second biggest disagreement was over the handling of illegal immigrants, where Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann took aim at Gingrich. Every candidate favors securing the border, but Gingrich believes we should not deport illegals who have been here for a long time, have families and have not committed any additional crimes. He said he was “prepared to take the heat” for a “humane” policy and that the political party that promotes family values shouldn’t split up the families of illegal immigrants. Romney and Bachmann accused him of favoring amnesty and said he would encourage further illegal immigration. Rick Perry sided with Gingrich.

The third disagreement was over withdrawing from Afghanistan. Jon Huntsman advocates an immediate drawdown to 10-15,000 troops to train Afghan security forces, gather intelligence and handle special operations. Mitt Romney asked him if that meant he’d bring the troops home next week, and Huntsman replied, “Did you hear what I just said?”

Romney was the most hawkish on Afghanistan, even though he supports President Obama’s timeline for a complete withdrawal by 2014. His policy is only different than Obama’s in that he wants to bring home the troops sent as part of the surge in December 2012, whereas Obama is bringing them home by September. Santorum criticized Huntsman, saying he was fulfilling the predictions of radical Islamic leaders.

The last big disagreement was over foreign aid to Pakistan. Rick Perry says he won’t give a single penny to Pakistan until its behavior changes. Bachmann said that Pakistan is “too nuclear to fail” and a complete cut-off in assistance could result in loose nukes. She also mentioned that China would replace U.S. influence in Pakistan. Rick Santorum agreed with Bachmann.

On Iran, the candidates were united with the predictable exception of Ron Paul. Gingrich called for an energy independence program that would pursue all forms of alternative energy and a strategy to defeat radical Islam that includes regime change in Iran. He said the U.S. could “break” the regime within one year if it cut off the supply of gasoline to Iran and sabotaged its only refinery. He will only support military action against Iran that has the objective of bringing down the regime.

Gingrich said there are only three choices: Regime change without war, regime change with war, or a nuclear-armed Iran. He also made the point that if the U.S. doesn’t support Israel, it makes it more likely that Israel will use nuclear weapons in a campaign to stop Iran from going nuclear.

Romney’s Iran policy was the only one to include indicting Ahmadinejad on charges of advocating genocide. He also said that Israel would be the first country he’d visit. Herman Cain said he’d only support Israeli action against Iran if their plan was “credible,” but that he thought Israel would be “highly unlikely” to have one because Iran has approximately 40 nuclear sites, some of which are in mountains. Ron Paul would not support Israel but said the U.S. should get out of its way. Rick Perry called for sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank, which he said would shut down Iran’s economy, and Gingrich agreed.

There was a difference of opinion over how to handle Syria. Rick Perry is the only one to support an immediate imposition of a no-fly zone, arguing that it is essential to curbing Iran’s ambitions. Ron Paul and Herman Cain opposed it altogether, with the latter saying he’d work with allies in the region. Romney mocked the idea of a no-fly zone, noting that Syria has 5,000 tanks. He supports a policy of regime change through sanctions and covert action, but didn’t rule out the military option. He said the Allawite minority has to be reassured that they don’t need to fight by the side of Bashar Assad and supports working with the military defectors fighting the regime, referring to the Free Syria Army.

Defense spending cuts brought out another disagreement. Romney opposes any cuts. Gingrich said defense spending should be on the table because there are ways the Pentagon can operate more cheaply. He mentioned that it takes 10-15 years to develop a new weapons system, but Apple puts out new technology every 9 months. Jon Huntsman said cuts should be considered and Ron Paul mocked the notion that defense cuts are being planned, arguing that the “cuts”  are really just a decreased growth in spending.

The best question of the night came from Marc Thiessen, who asked the candidates which national security issue they are most concerned about that hasn’t been discussed. Herman Cain was the first to pick cyber warfare. Newt Gingrich said it was the threat of an EMP attack and cyber warfare. Rick Santorum said it was the alliance of radical socialists and Islamists in Latin America, which Romney agreed with. Ron Paul chose overreaction to threats.

Rick Perry said “Communist China,” which he predicted would enter the “ash heap of history”  as the Soviet Union did. Bachmann mentioned the premature withdrawal from Iraq and al-Shabbab’s recruiting of Americans, including in her state. Huntsman said China but that it has “trouble ahead.”

National security isn’t a major issue in the campaign, as the economy, deficit and health care dominate the minds of voters. However, this could change at any moment and no one can foresee what will happen after 2012. This debate reminded America that it is choosing a Commander-in-Chief.

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