Foreign policy takeaways from the GOP presidential debate
GOP presidential candidates Herman Cain, from left, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney chat after Monday's debate.
September 13th, 2011
12:42 PM ET

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.

Last night’s GOP presidential debate went about as expected. Social security topped the list of issues discussed. A once surging, now sagging Michele Bachmann trained her rhetorical fire on the new front-runnerRick Perry. Former front-runner Mitt Romney threw his own jabs at the Texas governor where he could. And foreign policy continued in its role as the forgotten stepchild, getting mentioned only at the tail end of the debate.

But diehard foreign policy fans who skipped the Patriots-Dolphins game, the Miss Universe contest, and the three-hour finale of Bachelor Pad were rewarded for their commitment with some actual news. No, it was not when Newt Gingrich said Mexico is in a civil war. (The drug violence in Mexico is horrific, but it falls well short of a civil war.) It wasn’t when Rick Santorum and Ron Paul rehashed their exchange from last month’s debate over the relative merits of an assertive internationalist foreign policy and a non-interventionist one. (Paul might want to reconsider the wisdom of using a Tea Party-sponsored debate to explain al Qaeda anger at U.S. foreign policy.) And it wasn’t when Jon Huntsman answered a question from an Afghan refugee about what he would “do to secure safety and protection for the women and the children of Afghanistan” by saying that the Afghan people would be helped when America rebounds to “shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights, and free markets.” (I agree with Huntsman on Afghanistan, but the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal for Afghan women can’t be sugarcoated; they will be terrible.)

No, the news came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Perry whether “$2 billion a week, is that money well spent by U.S. taxpayers in Afghanistan?” Previously, Perry had avoided saying anything specific on U.S. Afghan policy. Not anymore:

Well, I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can.  But it’s also really important for us to continue to have a presence there.  And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don’t think so at this particular point in time.

I think the best way for us to be able to impact that country is to make a transition to where that country’s military is going to be taking care of their people, bring our young men and women home, and continue to help them build the infrastructure that we need, whether it’s schools for young women like yourself or otherwise.

Did Blitzer respond to this startling piece of news by asking a follow-up question of Perry or probing Romney for his views? No. He went to a commercial break. When the debate resumed, the first question Blitzer asked was: what “would you bring to the White House if you were the next president of the United States? An example, President George H. W. Bush put in a horseshoe pit.” Not quite the hard hitting query that us foreign policy junkies were expecting.

What should we make of Perry’s brief response? At a minimum, he is embracing President Obama’s plan to gradually reduce the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. He may, like Huntsman, want a faster withdrawal than Obama plans.

Either way, we haven’t heard the last of these comments. They will certainly alienate the gung-ho caucus that wants to stay the course in Afghanistan. They lit into Romney after he said in a June debate that it was up to the Afghans to preserve their independence. Santorum has already accused Huntsman and Paul for embracing “a very isolationist view” for their positions on Afghanistan. He may take Perry to task as well at the next debate, which is scheduled to be held on September 22 in Orlando.

Should Perry draw criticism for his comments, don’t expect him to go the standard Washington route and issue a clarification of his remarks. As his reaction to criticism of his comments on Ben Bernanke and Social Security show, it’s not his style.

So stay tuned.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. zed

    The Wolfman did a terrible job. When a young man in the audience asked how much do think I should pay Wolf only allowed 2 candidates to respond. The only straight forward Tea Party question asked all night. Tea Party Debate? LOL.

    September 13, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I suppose Rick Perry had lost his bearings over Afghanistan. They are as changeable as the situation in this country.

      September 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  2. Michelle G

    These "debates" are always pathetic, nothing but candidates spouting sound bites and no real "debate"

    September 13, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  3. Onesmallvoice

    It seems like the only thing these Republicans were debating about foreign policy was how best to preserve the status quo, that is, how keep all these obnoxious wars going and to further exploit the resources in the Middle East. If we wanted to keep things the way they are right now, all we have to do is to vote for Barack Obama. Either way, it appears that the 2012 elections are a total no-win proposition for America!!!

    September 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  4. Muin

    These people are more expert at domestic policy than foreign policy. Their foreign policy might cost America trillions of dollars like Bush's foreign policy because foreign policy team would be same. However, domestically they're really good. Texas really do have a vibrant middle class. Mid-level corporate employee's have mobility in entire Texas just like NYC. Living condition is much better than NYC. Democrats say they're for middle class but biggest democratic state like California really don't have a vibrant middle class. It's mostly rich and poor in that state. Words just don't seem to match for some reason.

    September 14, 2011 at 12:16 am | Reply
  5. fahrenheit451bookstore

    War as a foreign policy; we need to have a better plan all war is terrorism I don’t see how it differentiates us from our enemies. A crime against humanity is a crime against humanity! One of the oldest civilizations on the planet crushed by the might of the right! We could have saved all those precious lives but No; War that's the only way to disrupt a whole region and put them on notice, live up to our Ideals! Do it our way or War! That's the real terror. That is the real Threat when war becomes a viable political option to force our national will and ideology! Now they will be fighting the same battles we are fighting here in the U.S. the onslaught of the Moral Majority and the Domination by the Corporate World Oligarchy the Halliburton's of the world economic order will be picking over the spoils after reining havoc over the Iraq, the region and our economy. A trillion dollars thousands of lives lost for Corporate and national domination and don't believe them for a minute, It’s the Oil stupid! No More War! No more Republicans! fah451bks

    September 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  6. Matt

    That is what they all have in common JFK (Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis) Carter (Iran fall of the Shah, Hostage Crisis) Obama (Afghanistan, Arab Spring, Egypt, al-Qaida released from mid east prisons, Syria and the Libyan sideshow etc) They all messed up big time on foreign policy, real long term stuff, take Iran for example, or Cuba.

    September 14, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Reply

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