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
Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman met yesterday at a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. There was one significant difference with the original. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas squared off during the 1858 Illinois Senate race they disagreed bitterly on the issue of the day—slavery. In contrast, Gingrich and Huntsman mostly agreed with each other yesterday, giving their face-off what James Fallows of the Atlantic called the air of a “well-mannered talk show.”
The conversation focused on foreign policy. Both men gave lengthy - although seldom new - answers to the questions that came up. Huntsman said once again that the United States should reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan, that China is heading into a major political transition, and that the U.S. intervention in Libya was unwise. Gingrich criticized President Obama for “randomly using our forces” and making the United States “weaker” than it was ten years ago.
Gingrich and Huntsman edged toward new ground on defense. The former speaker, whose father was once stationed in Stuttgart, wondered why the United States still maintains large bases in Germany, when, as Huntsman pointed out “Russians aren’t coming anymore.” Gingrich stopped short of saying that these European bases should be closed. He did wonder - after pointing out that he once taught geography - about the wisdom of the military running Africa Command (AFRICOM) out of Germany. (Two reasons: One, AFRICOM grew out of European Command [EUCOM] and can save costs by taking advantage of its well-developed infrastructure, and two, no African country is eager to host a U.S. military headquarters on its soil.)
Looking forward, Gingrich advocated overhauling the Department of Defense, State, and USAID, arguing that a “thoroughly modernized, leaner management system than we have today” would help trim spending. (Calls for such reforms are a hardy perennial in Washington, and Gingrich didn’t lay out any new plans or explain why his reform ideas are more likely to take hold than the dozens of reform proposals that have been floated over the years only to flop.) Huntsman for his part called for focusing on asymmetric threats because “we’re probably not looking at a massive land war anytime soon.”
Both men rang alarm bells on Iran. Huntsman called Iran’s nuclear ambitions “the transcendent issue of this decade from a foreign policy standpoint,” and Gingrich warned that “no more than three nuclear weapons would be needed for a [second] Holocaust,” of Jews, this time in Israel. Gingrich also said:
The Iranians are every month getting a little closer to producing a nuclear weapon. In my judgment they will use it. A movement - which recruits its own children to learn how to be suicide bombers and sends them into a bus station, or into a mall or into a restaurant to blow themselves up in order to kill you - is a movement which with nuclear weapons, would use them in a heartbeat because there’s no effective deterrent.
It’s not clear why the former speaker thinks Israel’s arsenal of two-hundred-plus nuclear weapons wouldn’t be an effective deterrent. It’s also not exactly clear what Gingrich was referring to with his comment on Iran’s child suicide bombers. The Iranians infamously sent their children against Iraqi machine-gun positions during the Iran-Iraq war. But when it comes to suicide bombers the Iranians have largely encouraged and underwritten the actions of its proxies rather than using its own citizens, let alone its children. Neither Huntsman nor the moderator pressed Gingrich to explain.
If Gingrich wins the GOP presidential nomination, you can expect more Lincoln-Douglas-style debates to come. He has promised to challenge President Obama to a series of them. What if Obama says no? Gingrich says he will follow the president around the country refuting what he says until the president agrees.
If the latest USA Today/Gallup poll is to be believed, Obama will need to make the most of any debate with his Republican opponent. The poll has Obama trailing Mitt Romney by five percentage points, 43 to 48 percent, in swing states, and trailing Gingrich by three percentage points, 45 to 48 percent. The president still leads nationwide, however, edging out Romney 47 to 46 percent and Gingrich 50 to 44 percent. Could 2012 produce the fifth U.S. presidential election in which the popular vote winner loses the Electoral College and the presidency? It hasn’t happened for twelve years.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of James Lindsay.