The headlines coming out of last night’s GOP debate predictably emphasized the candidates clashing. Of course there were some clashes; this was a debate after all. But what struck me is not the level of acrimony but the lack thereof. It was, on the whole, a civil and informed debate with most of the candidates displaying familiarity with the issues; the exceptions were Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Ron Paul, who seemed out of their depth discussing foreign affairs. It is perhaps no coincidence that Paul–whose answer to every question seems to be that he’s opposed to war, period–displayed a stunning lack of knowledge of specific issues, for example conflating Somalia’s Shabaab with al-Qaeda. Both are Islamist terrorist organizations, but they have no formal affiliation.
Jon Huntsman knew more (as he not so subtly reminded viewers with his reference to China), but he was also out of step with the other candidates–for example, by advocating a rapid drawdown in Afghanistan that would most likely lead to the collapse of the Afghan government and a recurrence of the terrible civil war that devastated the country in the 1990s. But he has only slightly more hope than Paul does of becoming the Republican nominee. Both men are an asterisk in the race–notably only for getting unearned national airtime at debates such as this one.
The other candidates–Mitt Romney (full disclosure: I’m an adviser to his campaign), Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum–showed not only command of the topics but a large degree of agreement on the major foreign policy issues, such as the war on terror, Israel, Iran and the war in Afghanistan. Leaving aside immigration (a domestic issue which somehow intruded at great length) their major disagreements are over the implementation of policies to address such difficult issues as Pakistan–an area where even conservative policymakers and scholars are split and where there is hardly a”right” answer.
Despite the usual handwringing about the supposedly low quality of the candidates and the head scratching over why the “best” candidates refuse to run, I came away impressed by the field and reassured that a strong, forward-leaning American foreign policy dedicated to maintaining our global leadership finds such broad support from the mainstream Republican candidates. After a decade of war, it appeared to be possible that there would be an isolationist backlash even in the GOP. That hasn’t happened, leaving poor Ron Paul to lead the isolationist caucus pretty much by himself, with an occasional assist from the irrelevant Huntsman.