James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Four Takeaways from the GOP Presidential Debate

by James M. Lindsay
September 8, 2011

GOP presidential candidates (L-R) : former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) , former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, (R-TX), Herman Cain, and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, stand on stage during the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

GOP presidential candidates (L-R) : former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) , former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, (R-TX), Herman Cain, and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, stand on stage during the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate on September 7, 2011. (Mario Anzuoni/courtesy Reuters)

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 difference. Rick 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 Qaddafi’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?

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jeff

    “Isolationist” is a pejorative term used to demonize the rational argument for “Non-Intervention” of one state in another’s concerns. The reasons for proposing non-intervention can be debated. Is it a good policy or not? Why? Just to label it “Isolationist” is to distort the position. How about some rational discussion on the merits of the proposed policy? Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Sound defense of your own borders. Free trade with all. I like that position myself.

  • Posted by Maria

    Most of the candidates said a lot of words without really saying anything of substance. Ron Paul is the only one – the ONLY one – who has consistently stood for the foreign policy values that Reagan RAN on. I said he RAN on a non-interventionist foreign policy – he didn’t stick to it, though. He also lived to regret having intervened in Libya, according to his autobiography. Bachmann et. al. only give lip service to non-interventionism.

  • Posted by Carl

    I am looking for these 4 points:

    1) The US should not commit forces to military action oversees unless the cause is clearly vital to our national interest.
    2) If the decision is made to commit US forces abroad, it should be done with clear intent and support needed to win, and there must be clear objectives.
    3) If we do commit troops abroad for combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the clear support of a critical mass of the American people and US Congress.
    4) Even after all of these tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.

  • Posted by R. Garrett Mitchell

    Like you, I was struck by four things last evening, although no overlap — a good thing, I think

    First, I was surprised (pleasantly) by the relatively decent level of discourse, especially given the format, the number of participants, and the myriad possibilities for something resembling a food fight. Some of that credit goes to Williams and Harris who (a) did their homework, and (b) maintained an atmosphere of decorum, and some to the discipline exhibited by the candidates themselves. This is not the same thing as saying that last night’s debate was particularly substantive, but that it exceeded expectations, at least for this observer.

    Second, Perry’s entry into the race is good for all the candidates, and will make Romney stronger should he emerge as the nominee. Leaving aside all the obvious questions about Perry’s difficult general election politics, he is a smart, aggressive, tough competitor who forces his opponents to be at the top of their game. When it’s Romney v. the dwarfs, the whole field looks diminutive. When there’s a battle between ‘equals,’ all benefit from the elevation of the so-called ‘playing field.’

    Third, last evening’s session will make it more difficult for Santorum, Gingrich, Cain, and Bachman to raise money and build their organizations. I gather that Ron Paul’s supporters will be little affected by last night, even though I thought it was the first time that he actually seemed a bit like the crazy uncle in the attic. By the same token, it seemed to this observer that Jon Huntsman ventured out into the uninhabited space in the Republican race, testing whether there might be an opening for a Bruce Babbitt candidate in this race.

    Fourth, last evening introduced another one of those rhetorical questions on which American politics thrives — “What would Galileo say?” If I were Romney or Huntsman, I’d pick up that Perryism and run with it! It may not take its place alongside “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” or “Where’s the beef?,” but it may be my personal favorite.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Hope these are of some value.

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