Paul gets his turn
Just days from the Iowa caucuses, polls show Congressmen Ron Paul surging into the lead. The libertarian has long been an annoyance for the Republican establishment, but Paul's success in the polls has brought with it the kind of negative press the congressman avoided when he was viewed as merely a fringe candidate. Much of the attention this week has focused on newsletters that were published in Paul's name during the 1990s, while he was out of office. (The newsletters were also an issue in the 2008 election after the New Republic ran a lengthy expose on their contents.)
In addition to disparaging comments about African Americans and gays, the newsletters contain incendiary language about Israel, describing it as "an aggressive, national socialist state." Another passage suggests that the 1993 World Trade Center bombings may have been the handiwork of the Israeli spy agency, the Mossad. Paul's views were already suspect among many Jewish Republicans, who declined to invite him to a major candidate forum in Washington earlier this month because of his support for cutting U.S. aid to Israel. In several interviews this week, Paul denied writing the newsletters or even being aware of their contents at the time.
Newt Gingrich, who has seen his fortunes in the polls fade as Paul has surged, took a shot at the new kid on the block this week, describing Paul's foreign-policy views as naïve. "This is a guy who basically says, if the United States were only nice, it wouldn't have had 9/11. He doesn't want to blame the bad guys," Gingrich said in a radio interview. "He dismisses the danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon and seems to be indifferent to the idea that Israel could be wiped out. And as I said, I think the key to his volunteer base is people who want to legalize drugs."
Michael Cohen took on Paul's foreign policy in a piece for FP this week, arguing that "his entire philosophy is largely a renunciation of much of what Republicans believe about America's role in the world."
Romney comes out swinging on security
As the media frenzy focuses on Paul and Gingrich, Mitt Romney has been working to build his commander-in-chief credentials with a series of statements on foreign policy. Speaking to reporters on his campaign bus, he said he believes Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin "endangers the stability and peacefulness of the globe." Speaking just hours before terrorist bombings ripped through Baghdad, he described President Barack Obama's inability to secure an agreement to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as one of his "signature failures."
In an interview with Fox's Chris Wallace last weekend, Romney gave the president credit for giving the order for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but then said that "any president would have done that." Critics immediately jumped on what appears to be yet another flip-flop from the candidate, who criticized candidate Obama in 2008 for saying he'd be willing to unilaterally order a raid within Pakistani territory. The Democratic National Committee began running ads this week featuring comments from prominent Republicans including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, praising the president's handling of the bin Laden raid.
North Korea reactions
Several of the candidates issued statements this week in reaction to the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Romney called on China to "exert its influence" over its neighbor and take control of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. He also said that he hoped Kim's death would hasten the end of the North Korean regime. Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said Kim's death gives North Koreans "the best opportunity to get on a path towards a more free and open society and political reform." Rick Perry said the United States should "engage with China, and encourage Beijing to work towards a peaceful transition from a grim dictatorship to a free Korea," though the strength of his message was somewhat undermined by a press release referring to "Kim Jong II." To be fair, an "I" and an "l" look pretty similar ... and he's not the first candidate to think the late tyrant's name indicated that he was the second Kim Jong.
Obama's foreign-policy advantage?
Something of a consensus seems to be developing that -- considering the state of the U.S. economy -- that foreign policy could be the president's strong suit going into this election. CNN's Fareed Zakaria, writes that Republicans, facing two unpopular wars and unable to make traditional attacks of appeasement stick, are "effectively ceding the vast swathe of foreign policy to Obama." Conservative commentator Juan Williams notes that following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama "has fulfilled a major campaign promise" and that we're facing an unusual 2012 political scenario, in which Republicans will find a Democratic presidential incumbent vulnerable on the economy but strong on national security.
Indeed, the president gets strong marks from voters on his handling of national security and terrorism. But as poll-watcher Scott Clement noted last week in Foreign Policy's Election 2012 Channel, Obama's numbers aren't quite as strong on international affairs generally, or the war on Afghanistan in particular.
Return of Iraq
The war in Iraq was a defining issue of the last election, and Obama got high marks from voters from wanting to end the campaign there, one he never supported. But if the current violence and political dysfunction in the country continue following the recent troop withdrawal, it could quickly reemerge as a major national security headache for the Obama administration. In addition to Romney, Gingrich blasted the withdrawal this week, saying, "I think we're going to find to our great sadness that we've lost several thousand young Americans and had many thousands more wounded undertaking a project that we couldn't do." Obama's 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain, also weighed in, telling the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Petka, "All the gains we have achieved in Iraq are now at risk, and the enormous expenditure of blood and treasure that those gains entailed are now in jeopardy of being viewed by history as sacrifices made in vain."
What to watch for
For the next two weeks, it's all eyes on Iowa. Paul (27.5 percent) retains a slight lead in a recent University of Iowa poll, with Gingrich (25.3 percent) a close second, Romney (17.5 percent) in third, and Perry (11.2 percent) a distant fourth.
Huntsman, who has a laser-like focus on New Hampshire, has opted out of Iowa entirely, but for the socially conservative (and bottom-dwelling) candidates Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann a strong showing in the caucuses might be their last chance to save their campaigns. Some recent polls show Santorum climbing into fourth place in Iowa, and his campaign has blanketed the state with major advertising buys. Bachmann is still drawing enthusiastic crowds, but appears unlikely to climb out of the single-digits.
The latest from FP:
Michael Cohen speculates on just what a Ron Paul foreign policy would look like.
Scott Clement says Republican voters aren't as worried about Iran as their candidates' rhetoric might suggest.
Joshua Keating discusses Huntsman's dubious claim to have done "more than anybody" to fight China's one-child policy.
David Rothkopf looks at the 14 biggest lies of 2011.Most of the 2012 candidates -- including the president -- are guilty of several of them.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images