Tonight’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina may be just the latest episode in America’s favorite political reality show but it also give us a rare opportunity to hear the candidates try to articulate their positions on foreign policy. The results should be interesting even if not particularly insightful.
When it comes to foreign policy — which, despite our understandable emphasis on economics during what may turn out to be a double-dip recession, remains a president’s first and most important area of responsibility — there are two basic divides among the GOP hopefuls. In terms of policy, all but two, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, seek to associate themselves with the notion of American strength and the need to fight our enemies abroad though some seem more amenable at times to cutbacks in the Pentagon budget. But the even greater divide is the one between the candidates who can put forward a coherent worldview on war and peace issues and those who can’t.
As far as the first divide, though Huntsman doesn’t share Paul’s abhorrence of his country’s role in the world, he has carved a unique role in the campaign as a man who is running in large measure on his expertise in world affairs (a resume item secured by his service as Barack Obama’s ambassador to China) so as to defend an isolationist agenda. Huntsman favors a bug out of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a general retrenchment of American forces that would guarantee victory for al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. Paul’s brand of libertarianism isn’t just opposed to the use of force abroad, he has gone off the deep end on this issue to the point where he has acted as an apologist for the Iranians and other Islamists who fight the United States. But both are far out of the Republican mainstream.
Though the rest of the field has at times flirted with withdrawal from Afghanistan and cutbacks in military spending, they each see themselves as falling roughly in the broad range of conservatives and Republicans in the Ronald Reagan/George W. Bush mode of defenders of a strong America.
As to the second divide, the difference between those who know what they are talking about in terms of foreign policy and those who don’t is just as stark if not more so.
Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have always been able to speak knowledgeably about such issues. Both Gingrich and Santorum often spoke out on foreign affairs during their service on Capitol Hill, especially in terms of support for Israel. In particular, Santorum was an early and vocal advocate for action on the threat from Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Romney has never been known for his interest in this realm but his recent foreign policy speech put forward an intelligent vision of the need for a strong America, a reinvigorated alliance with Israel and a willingness to recognize the impending threat from China.
Rick Perry is a relative newcomer to foreign policy but in this case he has tended to stick with what he knows and believes. That is to say the Texan has a sophisticated view of energy policy and is a passionate evangelical supporter of the State of Israel.
Michelle Bachmann is another strong evangelical backer of Israel but after that her interest as well as her knowledge seems to somewhat sketchy. She was a fervent opponent of the Libyan intervention and has, at times, flirted with an isolationist position on Afghanistan.
As for Herman Cain, much has been written about his abysmal ignorance of foreign affairs coming into the campaign. He has tried to correct it with a trip to Israel but the lack of sophistication here is appalling. So, too, is the arrogance that his refusal to even pretend that he has even a smattering of knowledge about the world. His notion of relying on advisors rather than any expertise or insight of his own is an invitation to disaster.
As for the debate itself, it will be fascinating to see if the candidates can put forward anything more than stock answers. All, except for Paul, will likely emphasize support for Israel and disdain for bailing out bankrupt Europeans. Other than Paul, all will also try to sound tough on Iran.
But, as is always the case with these debates, the real drama will be provided not so much by the substance as by the personalities and the potential for pratfalls. Nevertheless, the public would be wise to listen carefully to the candidates’ positions. If one of these people is elected president their stands on foreign policy will have a much more direct impact on the world than their tax plans.