Tuesday night’s CNN debate offered Republican presidential contenders the opportunity to prove they are ready to navigate the murky waters of international affairs. The primary season’s twelfth debate focused entirely on national security and quickly set a tone that was in stark contrast to the “rah-rah” atmosphere of the previous debates. The crowd of Washington insiders and think tank employees offered a much more subdued response to the candidates than the primary voters who have been filling the debate halls to this point. But boisterous crowd reactions were not the only things missing from Tuesday night’s debate. There were also some notable geographic and political voids in the debate’s content:
1. North Korea
Iran soaked up air-time on Tuesday night — and rightfully so. The Iranian regime is decidedly anti-American and anti-Israel and its regional strength is growing as it angles to fill the power vacuum being created by our withdrawal from Iraq. Iran is also widely considered to be on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. But North Korea is already there. Not only is it a direct threat to our allies in the region, it is far closer to being a direct threat to the U.S. than Iran currently is. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in January that North Korea could hit the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. The next president of the United States is likely to face a crisis with Pyongyang during his administration, and we need to hear the candidates articulate a clear approach to dealing with North Korea.
Ambassador Jon Huntsman was the only candidate to mention Russia and it was only in the context of the ongoing Iran discussion. Huntsman rightly noted that any current or potential sanctions on Iran are weakened by the fact that Russia and China “won’t play ball.” No one cheered harder for the automatic defense cuts triggered by the super committee’s failure than the Kremlin. Russia continues to play a major role in international affairs and covert actions, and the Russians are seeking to re-establish their historic dominance over their region of the world.
One of the most significant issues with President Obama’s foreign policy is his inexplicable tendency to engage with our enemies at the expense of our allies. Because of this, the United States’s special relationships with Britain and other strategic European allies have been damaged. We share a lot of common ground with many European nations, including a common enemy in radical Islam and a common love for democracy. Our next president should value rather than ignore our European allies.
Additionally, as the European debt crisis escalates, it will increasingly weigh on the U.S. economy. The next U.S. president will need to exert influence in Europe to protect U.S. interests.
4. The United Nations
The U.N. is a corrupt, anti-American, anti-Semitic body. Yet, in spite of its attempts to chip away at U.S. sovereignty and clear contempt for everything our country stands for, the United States continues to prop it up. Quite simply, American voters — especially conservatives — have had just about all they can stand. The American people are ready for a president who, rather than trying to curry favor with the U.N., will be a leader among leaders on the international stage.
Overall, the debate was void of any major gaffes and no candidate is likely to significantly rise or fall based on his or her performance. Governor Romney may have underachieved slightly but continued to skate through relatively unscathed. However, Tuesday night’s clear winners were Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman.
Speaker Gingrich continued his tear through the GOP debates, articulating his foreign policy positions with clarity and ease. He also proved in his immigration exchange with Governor Romney that had Governor Perry been a stronger debater, Perry’s immigration position may not have damaged his candidacy as much as it did. Still, it will be interesting to see the reaction within the “not Romney” bloc to Newt’s call to “be humane in enforcing the [immigration] law.”
Congresswoman Bachmann delivered her strongest debate performance to date. She cranked up the rhetoric, spouting that the president “has essentially handed over our interrogation of terrorists to the ACLU,” but she was clearly comfortable with the issues and as a current member of the House Intelligence Committee, she brought a strong perspective on foreign affairs.
Ambassador Huntsman went toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney and won top marks from many in post-debate discussions. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted, “On foreign policy, Huntsman has no peer in this Republican field. That was obvious tonight.” While props from every Democrat’s favorite Republican won’t win over many GOP primary voters, Scarborough’s tweet was just one of many acknowledgments of Huntsman’s strong performance. But the reality remains that if Huntsman doesn’t start making significant inroads in New Hampshire, he’ll be out of the race shortly after the January 10 primary.
Mr. Cain did nothing to stop his recent skid or fight off the perception that he’s uninformed on foreign affairs. He was simply outclassed last night.
Congressman Paul’s rants against the Patriot Act and unwavering at-all-costs-support for the protection of civil liberties play well to libertarians but his foreign policy positions have very little cross-over appeal to the mainstream conservative base. Congressman Paul’s support has been remarkably steady throughout the primary to this point but if he is going to make a legitimate run at the nomination, he is going to have to find a way to appeal to mainstream conservatives. Foreign policy is not going to be the way.
Cliff Sims is the chairman of the Alabama College Republicans and founder of Generation NOW, an organization formed to educate and empower a new generation of leaders. His Twitter handle is @Cliff_Sims.