Benjamin J. Corell/U.S. Army



GOP Lacks a Coherent Foreign Policy Message

Whether Obama wins a second term or one of the eight GOP candidates vying for his job, the foreign policy challenges facing the United States will continue to be monumental.

From Iran to Afghanistan to immigration policy, the candidates competing for the GOP nomination have sought to portray Obama’s handling of foreign policy as a failure. And Tuesday night’s GOP debate, hosted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and sponsored by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, highlights that the GOP candidates have yet to develop a coherent foreign policy narrative of their own, other than to posit that each is not Obama.

The GOP candidates have had two opportunities to demonstrate their grasp of the political ramifications of the Arab Spring, Iran’s march to eventually becoming a nuclear armed state, the Afghan and Iraq Wars, U.S.-Pakistani relations and the U.S. role in the world.

Tuesday evening’s CNN debate and the National Journal/CBS News debate on November 12, demonstrate that it will take several more forums for each candidate to clearly offer his/her own set of policies that will convince the American voter to trust any one of them with the U.S. nuclear codes. While there were areas of disagreement, each candidate on stage on Tuesday night agreed that with President Obama as Commander-in-Chief, the U.S. is neither safer nor able to deal with the many international challenges facing the United States.

All of the candidates more or less struck to the same script that they have been following for many months. Ron Paul of Texas continued to level his claim that U.S. policies in the Middle East will continue to result in blowback. His disagreements with current front-runner, Newt Gingrich, over the Patriot Act will undoubtedly continue to endear him to his legions of supporters but will undoubtedly contribute to his inability to secure the nomination. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, argued that a no-fly zone over Syria is a policy option that his administration would consider in order to stop the slaughter of pro-democracy demonstrators. However, Perry demonstrated a lack of understanding of the ongoing unrest. “When you put the no-fly zone above Syria, it obviously gives those dissidents and gives the military the opportunity to maybe disband.”

Mitt Romney challenged Perry’s supposition that a no-fly zone would be effective due to the fact that Assad has been utilizing his tanks and security forces and unlike Qaddafi, has refrained from using his limited air power against demonstrators. “They have 5,000 tanks in Syria. A no-fly zone wouldn’t be the right military action – maybe a no-drive zone…I mean, this is a nation which is not bombing its people at this point, and the right course is not military.” In a concerted effort to demonstrate his nuanced understanding of global affairs, Romney went to somewhat great lengths to describe domestic Syrian politics. “We need to meet with the Alawites, to make sure they understand that they have a future after Assad, that they don’t have to link with him,” Romney asserted.

While the audience on Tuesday evening consisted of well-known foreign policy hawks and intellectuals, Paul Wolfowitz, Edwin Meese III and David S. Addington among them, it is not at all clear if Republican primary voters are aware or give much importance to the fact that Romney is aware that President Bashar al-Assad is from the minority Alawite sect. Pakistan continued to take center stage along with the Afghan War. Perry, and to an extent, Ron Paul, both continued their assertions that foreign aid would decrease significantly in their administrations. Paul would like to end it completely, while Perry would take a wait and see approach with most nations currently receiving some foreign assistance from the United States.

Perry argues that because of the existence of the Bin Laden hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and some pushback by Pakistan’s leadership over the past few months, foreign assistance to Pakistan should be withheld until it can be demonstrated that it can be “trusted.” “Until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America’s best interests in mind, I would not send them one penny, period,” Perry said. “I think it is important for us to send the message to those across the world that if you are not going to be an ally of the United States, do not expect a dime of our citizens’ money.”

Michelle Bachmann, whose poll numbers have plummeted since winning the Iowa Straw Poll, countered with a suggestion that mirrored Hillary Clinton’s critique of Obama in 2008, by suggesting Perry is “highly naive” by cutting of foreign aid to Pakistan. Bachmann, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, went to great lengths to explain the importance of foreign assistance to Pakistan, “They certainly aren’t looking out for the best interests of the United States. I wouldn’t expect them to. But at the same time we have to have our interest, which is national security, represented…The best way we can do that with an uneven actor state is to have some sort of presence there.”

The starkest difference over policy was offered by the Jon Huntsman and Romney exchange over the Afghan War. Huntsman, seeking a respectable finish in the New Hampshire primary and having invested most of his time and a significant amount of money to place well in the first in the nation primary, continued to argue for the removal of U.S. forces from the conflict while Mitt Romney continued to court neocons by calling for a continued U.S. troop presence for the foreseeable future. Huntsman, while aligning himself with public opinion by calling for a significant drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, is also hewing closely to President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. “We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan…We haven’t done a very good job defining and articulating what the end point is in Afghanistan,” Huntsman said. “And I think the American people are getting very tired about where we find ourselves today.”

Romney, sticking closely to his neocon positions on everything from maintaining a robust military to taking a stronger tract as it relates to Iran countered Huntsman that “this is not time for America to cut and run.” Romney’s calculation with Afghanistan and Iraq is that by rebranding himself as a neocon he can appeal to the hawks in the Republican Party. Whether this strategy will pay off in a general election against Obama remains to be seen. Despite overwhelming support for the Iraq and Afghan Wars in the beginning, the American public currently favors a removal of U.S. combat forces, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll.

Policy wonks in the audience were not to be disappointed. The debate eventually turned to the failure of the Congressional Super Committee that failed to reach an agreement on $1.2 trillion in budget cuts which will result in a trigger that would automatically enforce $500 billion in cuts at the Pentagon over the next decade. Whether hawks in Congress can circumvent the automatic cuts will unfold over the next few months. The candidates on Tuesday evening largely blamed President Obama for a lack of leadership for the committee’s failure. Except for Ron Paul, who largely favors cutting every federal program, even Defense, the other candidates offered dire warnings about America’s security if the Pentagon cuts come to fruition.

The ongoing crises over Iran’s nuclear program offered the candidates the best opportunity to demonstrate, on the one hand, America’s unequivocal support for Israel, and in some instances their willingness to use force if necessary. While not all the candidates agreed on the need for the use of force against the Iranian Republic, namely Paul, there was agreement that President Obama’s leadership has failed in the region. In response to the use of force with Iran, Gingrich asserted that “only as a last recourse and only as step toward replacing the regime.” Herman Cain said his administration would be prepared to assist Israel if it decided to use military force against one or more Iranian nuclear facilities. Mitt Romney suggested his administration would “stand up to Iran with crippling sanctions,” a policy currently being pursued by the Obama administration.

The candidates used Tuesday’s forum to establish their foreign policy bona fides and their unique leadership skills. However, with another dozen debates planned the debate process may result in Republican primary voter fatigue and present the Obama reelection team with choice soundbites and video clips to use in his reelection efforts. According to conventional wisdom, this debate process should cause the current field of eight candidates to dwindle in coming months.