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.