Commentary Magazine


Foreign Policy May Do More to Define GOP Race Than Some Thought

Tonight’s latest installment of America’s most popular political reality show will give us another chance to evaluate the Republican presidential candidates’ foreign policy credentials. But while even posing that question is enough to shrink Herman Cain’s dwindling poll numbers, the forum provided by the American Enterprise Institute (and broadcast by CNN at 8 p.m.) will enable us to see whether some of them have made progress towards enunciating a coherent vision of national defense and America’s place in the world.

Rather than a sidebar to the election, this topic may do more to define the race than many would have thought. While gaffes on domestic policy might be laughed off, as Cain has seen, a failure to show even a basic understanding of life and death issues that will face a commander-in-chief has the potential to sink any would-be president.

As has been the case throughout the campaign, the divide among the GOP hopefuls is as much along the lines of competence as it is of ideology. Cain’s lack of command of this topic may have done more to undermine his candidacy than the sexual harassment charges that have dogged him. But leaving aside his shortcomings, the AEI debate will give the Republican field an immediate opportunity to respond to the Obama administration’s approach to both the mandatory defense cuts that have been put in place by the congressional supercommittee flameout as well as what may be the key foreign policy challenge for the next president: Iran.

While the candidates have battered each other on their records on health care and social issues and the virtues of their various tax plans, it may well be that quizzing their foreign policy bona fides provides a better test of their fitness for the presidency. Though each of these events have tended to be viewed as more a matter of how well or poorly the candidates are holding up under the pressure of national exposure, this second debate in ten days on foreign policy may help illustrate which of them actually has a handle on war and peace issues.

This should play to the strengths of the two men who are currently leading in the polls: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Gingrich’s lengthy experience in public affairs burdens him with an inconsistent record on some topics such as foreign interventions (he backed Bill Clinton on Bosnia but came down on both sides of Barack Obama’s Libyan venture), but it also allows him to demonstrate that he understands not only the challenges but also the underlying factors that have created these crises.

Romney has been known principally for his command of economics, but during this campaign, he’s gone out of his way to articulate a vision of a strong America that ought to appeal strongly to conservatives who have otherwise been cool to him. He’s also been outspoken about Iran and willing to talk tough about China as a potential adversary.

In the last foreign policy debate, Rick Perry made something of a splash by saying he would zero out foreign aid at the start of each year and make potential recipients justify every dollar annually. Bashing foreign aid tends to be a crowd pleaser for GOP audiences, but by including Israel in that category, he raised eyebrows among the Jewish state’s ardent evangelical supporters. In doing so, he again showed a predilection for, as he would put, “stepping in it.” And by grandstanding on aid to Pakistan, all he accomplished was to show that second tier candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum actually understood the situation better than he did.

Though all but libertarian extremist Ron Paul will be counted on to address the Iranian nuclear threat with strong language and promises of action, it will be interesting to see if the candidates pick up on the opening the Obama administration left its opponents with its decision to enact a symbolic sanction of the Islamist regime’s Central Bank rather than the crippling measure that might bring results.

Another key test will come during a potential discussion of the mandatory defense cuts that may be enacted as a result of the supercommittee failure on the budget. Though all claim to be fiscal hawks, the country will be watching to see if the GOP field understands the importance of the issue and its impact on national security.

While it is wise to expect the unexpected when these candidates meet, the latest edition of this debate series may go a long a way toward further defining the serious contenders from the also-rans.

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