September 8th, 2011
10:46 AM ET

4 foreign policy takeaways from the GOP presidential debate

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy." Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.

By James M. Lindsay – Special to CNN

Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but last night’s GOP presidential debate barely discussed America’s role in the world. Debate moderators Brian Williams and John Harris apparently took to heart the Gallup polls showing that fewer than one in ten Americans name any foreign policy issue as the most important problem facing the country.

So with a minimal amount of material to work with, here are four takeaways about what the candidates said about foreign policy:

1. Candidates can mangle the facts. Debates typically feature claims that are flat wrong, and last night’s debate was no exception. Michele Bachmann repeated something she has said before, namely, that President Obama is insisting that Israelis must “shrink back to their indefensible 1967 borders.” What Obama actually said was that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” The qualifier “with mutually agreed swaps” makes all differenceRick Santorum believes that Obama “only went along with the Libyan mission because the United Nations told him to.” Ah, no. The Obama administration pushed for UN Security Council Resolution 1973; it didn’t sit around waiting for orders from Turtle Bay.

2. Rick Perry needs to figure out what he means by “military adventurism.” Perry vowed at last week’s VFW national convention to avoid a “foreign policy of military adventurism.” That raised an obvious question: what constitutes “military adventurism”? Harris asked Perry to explain, and the Texas governor didn’t have an answer. He responded at first by saying that he “was making a comment about a philosophy”—without explaining what that philosophy was—and then pivoting to applaud the killing of Osama bin Laden. When Harris pressed him to explain his philosophy, Perry offered empty bromides about having “a clear exit strategy” and never putting “our young men and women’s lives at risk when American interests are not clearly defined.” Perry can expect to hear more questions about military adventurism, perhaps as soon as Monday night’s debate in Tampa.

3. Michele Bachmann isn’t backing down on Libya. Bachmann said from the start that Operation Odyssey Dawn was a bad idea, and the fall of Tripoli hasn’t changed her mind. When Harris pushed her about Gadhafi’s ouster, she was crystal clear: the United States has no vital interest in Libya, and “if there is no vital interest, that doesn’t even meet the threshold of the first test for military involvement.” If only all debate answers responded so directly to the question asked.

4. Rick Santorum thinks his rivals are embracing isolationism. The former Pennsylvania senator specifically singled out Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul for embracing “a very isolationist view of where the Republican Party should be headed” because they want to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. (Why withdrawing U.S. troops from a ten-year-old war constitutes isolationism is a separate question.) Santorum’s endorsement of the Libyan mission and his criticism of exit strategies suggests he thinks that Bachmann and Perry are also drinking from the isolationist well. But Santorum’s comments drew almost no applause even though he called on Republicans “to stand in the Reagan tradition” of spreading American values around the world. Republican voters, even ones in the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, just aren’t eager for foreign policy activism.

What are your takeaways on foreign policy from the debate?

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    With the exception of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, all the Republican candidates want to continue the very same stupid foreign policies which are and already has bankrupted our national treasury. They wish to continue all these useless and unnecessary wars plus increase the needless military spending. If one wants to keep the status quo, they might as well just vote for Barack Obama. Either way, this country will only suffer!!!

    September 8, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I don't blame the GOP's desire to preserve the power and glory of America. No cut in military spending! Yet no interests in foreign politics. I doubt if they are have the diplomatic skills to deal with the messy world outside the U.S. I don't blame them for their disinterest, if they see what's going in those trouble spots, which only increase in number and the conflicts there just escalate.

      September 8, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  2. Nelson

    I agree with Onesmallvoice, this country needs real change from someone thats not in bankers pockets. America needs Ron Pauil now.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  3. Jon

    fareed my boy...mutually agreed land swaps was shot down recently by none other than abbas when he declared, no land swaps whatsoever. Abbas also recently called for ethnic cleansing of jews in the new palestinian state...he said, no jews, civilian or military will be allowed in the new palestinian state.

    I know you don't like when facts get in your way, oops, I meant obama's way, no, I meant your, facts dont lie fareed...

    you and everyone else knows, the new palestinian state will be just another radical failed arab state.

    September 8, 2011 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Robert

      Are we on the same article? Fareed didn't post this article, Lindsay did

      September 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
      • MIke

        Jon's not letting facts or basic rules of grammar get in his way.

        September 8, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • bobalu

      Actually what he said was ""I will never allow a single Israeli to live among us on Palestinian land"[55] " Israelis / Jews big difference.
      While I disagree with this stance, you can not seriously dismiss a long overdue peace settlement that effect millions of people and the whole world because what one guy said over a year ago.

      September 9, 2011 at 9:46 am | Reply
  4. bobalu

    What kind of foreign policy is one that says we don't go to war without an exit strategy? What exit strategy did we have in world war 2? You go to war with a certain goal, when you achieve that goal or accept failure then you work on your exit strategy.

    September 9, 2011 at 9:24 am | Reply
    • sgpnz

      Of course there was an exit strategy. It was called "Unconditional Surrender".

      September 9, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
    • sgpnz

      The problem with the current wars is, from whom do we accept surrender?

      September 9, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Reply
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