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Gauging Foreign Policy’s Importance in GOP Race

November 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
What role will foreign policy and national security play in the Republicans' 2012 nomination fight? Judy Woodruff explores those questions and previews Tuesday night's debate with historian Richard Norton Smith and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, to campaign politics, and what role foreign policy and national security will play in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and beyond.

One thing the Republican candidates do agree on was clear at the last foreign policy debate on Nov. 12 in South Carolina.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: We’re here tonight talking to the American people about why every one of us is better than Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The eight contenders vying to become the next commander in chief say the current one has been a failure when it comes to foreign policy.

But with some major successes this year, including the covert mission that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, administration support of Arab spring uprisings that brought down the regime in Egypt and toppled and killed Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and the announcement of a drawdown of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, the American people give President Obama some of his highest marks in foreign affairs.

A recent Gallup poll showed 63 percent of those asked approved of Mr. Obama’s handling of terrorism. Another 52 percent were in favor of his Iraq war policy.

That hasn’t stopped the Republican candidates from attacking the president on the issue and showing their own divisions in the process. The front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, outlined his position in a speech at the Citadel in October.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: In an American century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Followed by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman days later.

JON HUNTSMAN, (R) presidential candidate: The world is a better place when America leads.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the debates have shown a range of opinions on U.S. action in Afghanistan.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum: 

RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: Victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan is that the Taliban is a neutered force. They are no longer a security threat to the Afghan people or to our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To the plan to pull all U.S. troops from Iraq, criticized by most candidates. Huntsman and Texas Congressman Ron Paul support the complete Iraq withdrawal and a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On preventing Iran’s nuclear ambitions:

QUESTION: Congressman Paul, let me follow up with you for just 30 seconds. It is worth going to war to prevent a nuclear weapon in Iran?

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas, presidential candidate: No, it isn’t worthwhile.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But others support a more muscular approach.

MITT ROMNEY: If after all of the work we have done, there’s nothing else we can do besides take military action, then, of course, you take military action. It’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

NEWT GINGRICH: I agree entirely with Gov. 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on interrogating terror suspects.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn., presidential candidate: If I were president, I would be willing to use water-boarding. I think it was very effective.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: It gained information for our country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, some have made missteps along the way.

In a September debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, when asked what he would do if he got a 3:00 a.m. call saying the Taliban had gotten nuclear weapons from Pakistan:

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas, presidential candidate: Well obviously, before you ever get to that point you have to build a relationship in that region. And that’s one of the things that this administration has not done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Herman Cain was stumped when asked about President Obama’s handling of the conflict in Libya.

HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: OK, Libya.

JON HUNTSMAN: First of all, I don’t think, Mitt, you can take…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, is the only contender with foreign policy experience.

MITT ROMNEY: We can’t just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, well, you will start a trade war. There’s one going on right now, folks.

JON HUNTSMAN: Well, the reality is a little different, as it usually is when you’re on the ground. And I have tried figure out for 30 years of my career.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidates will have another chance to discuss China and a host of other foreign policy issues for the second time tonight at a debate hosted by CNN in Washington.

Joining us now to dig deeper into the foreign policy viewpoints of the Republican presidential field are Richard Norton Smith, scholar in residence at George Washington University, and Michael Gerson, a columnist for The Washington Post who also served as chief speechwriter and policy adviser to former President George W. Bush.

Gentlemen, it’s good to have you both back with us.

Michael Gerson, let me start with you.

So, we know they are all critical of President Obama, but is there an underlying philosophy for all of these Republican candidates?

MICHAEL GERSON, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: Well, it’s interesting.

On economic issues, they do generally agree on tax policy, on size-of-government issues, but there’s actually a division, a philosophic division, among the Republicans on that stage tonight. There are some, like Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman that want to be more inward-looking and focus on the American economy, less engaged in the world.

And then there are people like Gingrich and Romney, who are more hawkish internationalists, and self-consciously adopt the Reagan mantle. And so I guess the thing that won’t be very interesting is that the two front-runners actually share a lot of ground, as we saw in that on Iran and other things. But there are serious divisions, philosophic divisions, in this group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Richard Norton Smith, apologies. I said you’re at George Washington. You’re, of course, at George Mason University.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another important figure in American history.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Both great institutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both great institutions.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how consistent is this, is the view — are the views of these candidates with what we saw in former President Bush and President Reagan?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, that’s fascinating, because on the one hand, we have — one thing they all have in common is trying to establish themselves as credible alternatives to Barack Obama.

And, certainly, the front-runners are interested in showing that they’re somehow perceived as being tougher than the president. Remember, this is an issue that has historically tended to work in favor of the Republicans. And those numbers that you saw, where you had 63 percent saying they approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy, that’s atypical.

And so they’re operating in that context. But there’s something else they’re also reacting to. And that is the last Republican president and his foreign policies, particularly the idea of preemptive military action in the Middle East.

So, the Ron Pauls of the world and, to a lesser degree, the Jon Huntsmans, are really — they’re grandchildren of the old isolationists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It’s the libertarian wing of the party, but it’s also the party uncomfortable with where George Bush led them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that the main fault line among these Republicans, Michael Gerson?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think so.

If you look at, for example, Afghanistan, where there’s a real difference of opinion among the candidates, there’s a skepticism in some of the candidates of nation-building. That, I think, is really the fault line and it does relate to these issues, while some candidates, Perry, in the last election said we have got to win, and Santorum very much in that category.

So I do that that’s the context, is really Afghanistan, nation-building.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you see also a difference then on torture, on water-boarding. We heard Michele Bachmann and a couple of the other candidates more aggressive, and then…

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, this is an issue where I don’t think the criticism really rings true. I mean, Barack Obama may have criticized water-boarding, but he uses drones to kill terrorists with a great deal of regularity.

He has a very robust approach to the war on terror. And I think that’s a genuine problem for this Republican field. They can have some disagreements on conduct of strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq and other things, but it’s hard. On the war on terror, which was really the defining issue of the last 10 years, Obama has been very much on the right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Richard, as we have been suggesting here, among the two, at least at this point, front-runners, Romney and Gingrich, they are on the more interventionist side of the argument here.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That’s true. That’s true.

It’s interesting to listen to Gov. Romney, who has drawn a number of lines in the sand for a number of reasons, including — I think, are designed to demonstrate that there are convictions that are absolutely unchangeable.

But to say that, if I’m elected president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon, if Barack Obama remains president, it will, that’s a defining moment. And it’s — again, it goes to this notion of demonstrating his bona fides and at the same time addressing the larger concern that a lot of people have about someone who has taken multiple positions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gerson, how much do we know about how much Republican primary voters pay attention to foreign policy, national security?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it’s fair. The conventional wisdom in this case is pretty true. We face an economic crisis.

I think the focus of the primaries has been very much if — people like Perry and Cain have had their moments in the sun. If the argument was about foreign policy, they wouldn’t. This was a very different kind of debate.

Now, that said, you have to say that Europe is going to really affect what our economy does. The candidates in the course of the campaign are going to have deal with this. Iran is a big issue. That’s going to be — I think in the presidential campaign.

And presidents are always surprised by history. You may run on domestic policy, but you’re tested by the world. And it’s an important qualification. And I think that Republicans, they make a judgment on gravitas. And that’s part of the judgment.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I was going to say, the historical parallel that comes at least to mind is 1992, where you had George H.W. Bush that was I think widely, if not universally, regarded as someone very skilled in foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Running for reelection in ’92, yes.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Following a successful war in the Gulf and a masterful diplomatic performance in putting together the coalition against Saddam Hussein.

And it actually came to be a detriment. It came to symbolize someone out of touch with the domestic concerns of a nation that was going through some real economic hardships.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m asking about how much it matters to both of you — and, Michael, I will come back to you on this — because a couple of them have had difficulty, as we showed, with some questions on foreign policy.

Do — how strong are they in their knowledge base?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think this is a genuine problem for Herman Cain, who was really on the top of the world just a few weeks ago. He’s made some serious gaffes, particularly on Libya.

And I thought it was interesting this week. He made the claim, I don’t need to know about foreign policy because I will pick the right people. And the person who criticized this, this last week was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who simply said, well, you don’t have to be an expert on these issues, but you have to be intellectually curious, you have to learn the issues in the process of this campaign process.

And so I do think that it’s hurting Cain. Tonight, he has to seem like he has some mastery of these issues in order to, I think, remain a viable candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do — is it believed that the president — yes, the president is doing all right now. But by — a year from now, is this president going to — is foreign policy going to matter a great deal in the election?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: In all likelihood — and, again, if you think there are some parallels with ’92, success, demonstrated success, acknowledged success in foreign policy and a buck-and-a-half will get you a cup of coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And it won’t get you the Electoral College.

It is — the 800-pound gorilla in this process is, yes, it’s important that we have these debates, yes, it’s important that we test these candidates for their knowledge and their programs, but, in the end, it’s highly unlikely that a great many Americans will base their vote upon foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, quickly, as you just said, Michael Gerson, these issues do matter, what happens to the Eurozone, what…

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. No, they do actually matter. And they matter to some subgroups.

So, Republicans have generally been hostile to foreign assistance, for example, which is not inconsistent with their recent 10-year history. We have a lot of achievements there. A lot of religious voters are concerned about that. A lot of national security voters are concerned about those issues.

And so I think, even if it’s not an overall issue, I think there are subgroups in the electorate that pay attention to these issues closely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re trying to pay attention when we can.

And we thank you both for being here. Michael Gerson, Richard Norton Smith, thank you.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Thanks.