Although no clear winner emerged from “The Republican Commander in Chief Debate” Saturday night, candidates did disagree on major, volatile international issues as they outlined why they should prevail over the present commander in chief, Barack Obama, in 2012.
They agreed on the global peril as Iran moves quickly toward nuclear capability, as evidence indicates, and they soundly criticized President Obama’s approach to Iran. The GOP contenders advocated tougher sanctions against Iran, aid to opposition parties, and covert action against the country’s nuclear scientists, with some suggesting a military attack as a last resort.
In this, the 10th GOP debate, all of the candidates escaped any major gaffes that have plagued one or another of the rivals during their previous face-offcs.
Other issues provoking the most discussion at the CBS-National Journal-sponsored debate in Spartansburg, S.C., were U.S. relations with Pakistan, foreign aid, and waterboarding to extract information from terror suspects.
Major Garrett, the National Journal’s congressional correspondent who shared questioning honors with Scott Pelley of CBS, asked the candidates how they would address the potential for Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon, amid evidence that that is its goal.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney argued that he’s the best choice to avoid nuclear Iran, saying: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."
Romney castigated Obama’s approach to Iran the president’s “greatest failing, from a foreign policy standpoint, which is he recognized the gravest threat that America and the world faces — and faced was a nuclear Iran and he did not do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly. What he should have done is speak out when dissidents took the streets and say, ‘America is with you.’ And work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been showing renewed strength of late in national polls, was blunt in his assessment of the Obama administration’s efforts: "There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran, and a few ways to be stupid. The administration skipped all the ways to be smart.”
Asked to list the smart ways, Gingrich responded: “First of all . . . maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum coordination with the Israelis —in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran. Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher did in the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down.”
Gingrich, whose debate performance gained plaudits from some pundits, said, “And I agree entirely with Governor Romney, if in the end, despite all of those things — the dictatorship persists, you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon.”
Businessman Herman Cain said, “The first thing that I would do is to assist the opposition movement in Iran, that's tryin' to overthrow the regime. Our enemies are not the people of Iran, it's the regime. And a regime change is what they are trying to achieve. Secondly, we need to put economic pressure on Iran, by way of our own energy independence strategy. By having our own energy independence strategy, we will impact the price of oil in the world markets, because Iran uses oil not only as a means of currency, but they use it as a weapon.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann warned that Iran's attempt to develop a nuclear weapon is part of a regional push against Israel. Iran is working with countries such as Syria and groups such Hamas to push its nuclear agenda, she said.
That means "the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel," she said.
The issue of Pakistan propelled discourse over foreign aid.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested that every country, including Pakistan, should see its U.S. aid eliminated each year and then should convince the United States why it deserves any money at all.
"Then we'll have a conversation in this country about whether or not a penny of our taxpayer dollars needs to go into those countries," Perry said in response to a question about whether Islamabad plays a double game with Washington.
"Pakistan is clearly sending us messages . . . that they don't deserve our foreign aid ... because they're not being honest with us," said Perry, who noted that he would approach foreign aid by having each nation requesting it to start at zero.
That includes Israel, he said, under questioning, insisting that nations should justify why they deserve foreign aid.
Gingrich agreed with the zero starting point, saying, “"Consider the alternative," Gingrich said. "You're giving some country $7 billion a year. You start off — or in the case of Egypt, $3 billion a year — you start off every year and say here's your $3 billion, now I'll start thinking? You ought to start off at zero and say, explain to me why I should give you a penny."
Bachmann disagreed in part, saying, “Pakistan is a very difficult area, because they have been housing terrorists and terrorists have been training there. Al-Qaida, as well as Hikani, as well as other militias dealing with terrorist organizations. But I would not agree with that assessment to pull all foreign aid from Pakistan. I would reduce foreign aid to many, many countries. But there's a problem, because Pakistan has a nuclear weapon. We have more-- people affiliated with al-Qaida closer to that nuclear bomb than in any nation. This is an extremely important issue.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also expressed concern about pulling aid from Pakistan, which he said "must be a friend of the United States.”
"Pakistan is a nuclear power, and there are people in that country if they gain control of that country will create a situation equal to the situation that is now percolating in Iran," Santorum said. "So we can't be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend. They must be our friend, and we must engage them as friends."
Both Bachmann and Cain said they would reinstate waterboarding during interrogations of suspected terrorists, which brought sharp rebukes from Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Paul declared that "waterboarding is torture" and "torture is illegal" under both U.S. and international laws. He denounced waterboarding as "immoral" and "impractical.”
"Why would you accept the position of torturing a hundred people because you know one person might have information?" Paul said. "It's really un-American to accept, on principle, that we will torture people that we capture."
Huntsman also criticized the practice, contending that it runs contrary to U.S. values.
"We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture," Huntsman said. "We lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for."
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