When it comes to an easy and demonstrable grasp of the complexity in foreign policy, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman were most at home in Saturday night’s debate, but it was Rick Perry whose answers defined the evening with his assertions that the Chinese government will end up on “the ash heap of history,” and that if he’s elected foreign aid would start at zero, even for Israel.
Perry had the most riding on his performance, and he skillfully bantered with the moderator when asked where he would house the nuclear-weapons program if he disbanded the energy department. “Glad you remembered it,” he quipped. “I had some time to think about it,” deadpanned CBS anchor Scott Pelley. “Me too,” Perry said.
Though more prepared and better at remembering his lines, Perry doesn’t instill confidence as a potential commander in chief, though he demonstrated a likely staying power in the race. He tangled with Ron Paul over the issue of torture, using for the first time in these debates the fact that aside from Paul, he’s the only one who served in the military. Reminding the audience that he volunteered for the U.S. Air Force in 1972, he then worked himself up into some emotional pitch saying that there are people out there who will kill American servicemen and women “in a heartbeat” and "to deny them the ability to extract information is a travesty … This is war,” he said. “That’s what happens in war.”
Separating the candidates who endorse torture from those that don’t (Paul and Huntsman) and the candidates who thinks it’s worth going to war to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons (Romney and Gingrich were the most hawkish) took up much of the 90-minute debate, and offered opportunities for the candidates to show their stuff. Paul pointed out that torture is illegal under American law and international law, and that waterboarding is torture. He called it “un-American in principle.”
That provided an opening for Huntsman, a diplomat by nature who does not share his party’s bloodlust, to echo Paul’s statement that waterboarding is torture and to remind the audience that “this country has values, we have a name brand in the world,” and “a lot of people in the world are still relying on the United States to stand up for [those values].” Most of the others, with Herman Cain leading the charge, said they would repeal the measures put in place by the Obama administration to ban the enhanced interrogation techniques championed by former vice president Dick Cheney.
The most chilling part of the debate was the willingness of several of the candidates to just toss over Pakistan. Asked if Pakistan is an ally or an enemy, Cain said, “We don’t know.” It took Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum, who are fringe players according to the polls, to point out that Pakistan is a nuclear power, and walking away in a fit of pique is not in the U.S. interest. “You don’t cowboy this one,” Santorum said.
Romney played it safe, as he has consistently. He took every opportunity he had to steer his criticism against President Obama. If we reelect Barack Obama, he said, Iran will have the bomb, “and if you elect me, Iran will not have nuclear weapons.” He gave his standard campaign spiel about American exceptionalism, and the only contender who gently challenged him was Huntsman, who pointed out that Romney’s declaration that on day one of his administration he would confront China is easier said than done. “I don’t think you can take China to the WTO [World Trade Organization] on currency issues,” Huntsman said with the air of someone who knows what he’s talking about. And we don’t need a trade war with China, he added.
One thing we do need is a little more than one minute for these candidates to flesh out their answers. The tyranny of the clock is frustrating to viewers, but probably saved more than a few of these candidates from wandering further into territory of which they have only a passing knowledge.