- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
The GOP candidates faced off in Sioux City on Thursday in what will likely be the last primary debate before the Iowa Caucuses. Foreign policy was very much on the agenda. Responding to a question about the downed U.S. drone in Iran and president’s request that it be returned by Iran, Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of weakness: “Does timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people? Absolutely,” Romney said. “A strong America is the best ally peace has ever owned. A spy drone downed over Iran and he says ‘pretty please?'”
Rick Perry repeated his call for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign over the controversial Operation Fast and Furious undercover gun-running scheme on the U.S.-Mexico border. In response to a question about whether Holder should take responsibility for the incident even if, as he claims, he didn’t know about, Perry said, “If I’m the president of the United States, and I find out that there is an operation like Fast and Furious and my attorney general didn’t know about it, I would have him resign immediately.” Perry also disputed the president’s assessment that the border is safer that it’s ever been.
Jon Huntsman took a counterintuitive approach, using lower immigration numbers as evidence of the president’s failures: “In terms of immigration, and illegal immigration, this president has so screwed up this economy, nobody is coming anymore. There is nothing to come for. There’s not a problem today! Look at the numbers coming across. The numbers posted the other day — lowest in four decades.”
Rick Santorum continued his attack on Latin America policy and claims that Islamist militant groups are using the region as a safe haven: “This president has ignored that threat, has insulted our allies like Honduras and Colombia deliberately and embraced like other scoundrels in the Middle East, embraced Chávez, Ortega, and others in South America not promoting our value and interests.”
Ron Paul, who has seen a recent surge in the polls, dismissed concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, saying, “There is no evidence they have a nuclear weapon. This is another Iraq coming. There’s war propaganda going on.” Michele Bachmann responded incredulously to Paul’s attitude, saying she had “never heard a more dangerous statement.”
The Gingrich-Huntsman debate
Newt Gingrich finally got his wish for a three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debate he sat down on Monday at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College with the trailing Huntsman. It was a cordial affair — after all, a strong showing by Huntsman in New Hampshire can only be to Gingrich’s advantage against Romney — with few major disagreements between the two. (Huntsman even referred to Gingrich as a “great historian.”) Gingrich disapproved of the way Obama had handled the Arab Spring, particularly how he “dumped” U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in a “very unceremonious way.” Huntsman anticipated “a hubristic, nationalistic generation” poised to take power in China.
Are Gingrich’s 15 minutes up?
Once again, Newt dominated the news this week, particularly for his controversial comments that Palestinians are an “invented people,” a remark that generated a sharp backlash from Palestinian leaders. Even Romney, hardly known for his pro-Palestinian views, went after Gingrich’s “erratic outspokenness.”
This also seemed to be a week when major Republican figures turned on Gingrich. Columnist George Will blasted the front-runner, saying he “seems to believe there is always some higher synthesis, inaccessible to lesser intellects, that makes all his contradictions disappear.” The National Review piled on: “His character flaws — his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas — made him a poor Speaker of the House.”
Whether attacks like these will resonate with primary voters remains to be seen, though Gingrich’s numbers do seem to be slipping somewhat in Iowa.
Obama touts Iraq pullout
At a modest ceremony in Baghdad this week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta marked the official pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. In a new web video from the Obama campaign titled, “Promises Kept,” the president touts his commitment to ending the Iraq war, saying, “Over the next few days, a small group of American soldiers will begin the final march out of that country… Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people.” The pullout, despite being conducted along a timeline previously agreed by Obama’s predecessor, is likely to be a centerpiece of Obama’s pitch to voters, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Cain for SecDef?
Guess who’s back? Former candidate Herman Cain, who famously struggled with even the fundamentals of foreign policy during his campaign, was interviewed by Barbara Walters this week as part of her annual “most fascinating people” segment and told her that if he had his choice of Cabinet positions, he’d like to be secretary of defense. This response prompted a rare “what?” from the veteran interviewer. Perhaps he’d settle for ambassador to Uzbekistan?
What to watch for
All eyes are on Iowa this holiday season as residents of the Hawkeye state prepare for caucuses on Jan. 3. There’s now increasing speculation that Paul might have his turn as the next “anyone-but-Romney,” following turns by Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. Paul has consistently polled in second or third place in Iowa, and with Gingrich’s numbers beginning to fall, he may be in a position to capitalize. Expect more scrutiny of Paul’s views, particularly his neo-isolationist foreign policy, in the days ahead.
The latest from FP:
Defense writer Sharon Weinberger examines Gingrich’s far-out futurist vision of warfare.
Former candidate Tim Pawlenty tells FP‘s Josh Rogin that Gingrich is a flip-flopper on foreign policy.
Michael A. Cohen laments that more genuine disagreements weren’t aired at the Gingrich-Huntsman showdown.
Poll-watcher Scott Clement explains why, despite Iraq and Osama, the president shouldn’t feel safe from attacks on his foreign-policy record.