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'I get to give the answers I want': Foreign-policy highlights from the Arizona debate

Last night's debate in Arizona featured the usual rhetoric in the economy, more conversation than usual about contraception, and more evidence for the theory that Ron Paul is essentially running as a blocking tight-end for Mitt Romney at this point, repeatedly hammering at Rick Santorum's credentials as a fiscal conservative. We also got the first extended conversation about the situation in Syria, though everyone seemed anxious to pivot back to the comparatively more comfortable topic of Iran. To the highlights:

We kicked off our national-security discussion with the question of women in combat. Santorum had made some waves a few weeks ago by suggesting that he has reservations about opening more front-line duties to women since "men have emotions when you see a woman in harm’s way." He also made some inaccurate statements about Israel's stance on this issue. The other candidates proceeded to hang Santorum out to dry on this one. 

Romney: 

I would look to the people who are serving in the military to give the best assessment of where women can serve. We've had over 100 women lose their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was with Governor Bob McDonnell. His daughter has served as a platoon leader in Afghanistan. He said that she doesn't get emotional when she faces risk, he's the one that gets emotional as she faces that kind of risk. And I believe women have the capacity to serve in our military in positions of significance and responsibility, as we do throughout our society. 

He then transitioned to a discussion of defense cuts and national security more broadly. 

Gingrich -- surprise, surprise -- thought it was a "misleading question":

You live in a world of total warfare. Anybody serving our country in uniform virtually anywhere in the world could be in danger at virtually any minute. A truck driver can get blown up by a bomb as readily as the infantrymen. So I would say that you ought to ask the combat leaders what they think is an appropriate step, as opposed to the social engineers of the Obama administration.

Paul's answer doesn't "want even the men to be over there."

Santorum grumbled: 

I still have those concerns, but I would defer to at least hearing the recommendations of those involved. But I think we have civilian control of the military, and these are things that should be decided not just by the generals, but we should not have social engineering, as I think we've seen from this president. We should have sober minds looking at what is in fact the best proper -- proper roles for everybody in combat.

Then it was on to Iran, where Gingrich is no longer so enthusiastic about asking generals for their input:

General Dempsey went on to say that he thought Iran was a rational actor. I can't imagine why he would say that. And I just cannot imagine why he would have said it. The fact is, this is a dictator, Ahmadinejad, who has said he doesn't believe the Holocaust existed. This is a dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth. This is a dictator who said he wants to drive the United States out of the Middle East. I'm inclined to believe dictators. Now I -- I think that it's dangerous not to.

If -- if an Israeli prime minister, haunted by the history of the Holocaust, recognizing that three nuclear weapons is a holocaust in Israel, if an Israeli prime minister calls me and says, I believe in the defense of my country. This goes back to a point that Congressman Paul raised that we probably disagree on. I do believe there are moments when you preempt. If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons.

Romney pounded home his talking points:

Ahmadinejad having fissile material that he can give to Hezbollah and Hamas and that they can bring into Latin America and potentially bring across the border into the United States to let off dirty bombs here. I mean -- or -- or more sophisticated bombs here, this -- we simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weaponry. And -- and -- and this president has a lot of failures. It's hard -- it's hard to think of -- economically his failures, his -- his policies in a whole host of areas have been troubling.

But nothing in my view is as serious a failure as his failure to deal with Iran appropriately. This president -- this president should have put in place crippling sanctions against Iran, he did not. He decided to give Russia -- he decided to give Russia their number one foreign policy objective, removal of our missile defense sites from Eastern Europe and got nothing in return. He could have gotten crippling sanctions against Iran. He did not. When dissident voices took to the street in Iran to protest a stolen election there, instead of standing with them, he bowed to the election. This is a president... who has made it clear through his administration in almost every communication we've had so far, that he does not want Israel to take action. That he opposes military action. This is a president who should have instead communicated to Iran that we are prepared, that we are considering military options. They're not just on the table. They are in our hand. We must now allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. If they do, the world changes. America will be at risk. And some day, nuclear weaponry will be used. If I am president, that will not happen. If we reelect Barack Obama, it will happen. 

Santorum took the opportunity to remind the crowd of his long record on Iran, take a shot at the vice president, and stand resolutely behind.... Hosni Mubarak:

I would say that if you're looking for a president to be elected in this country that will send that very clear message to Iran as to the seriousness of the American public to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon, there would be no better candidate than me because I have been on the trail of Iran and trying to advocate for stopping them getting a nuclear weapon for about eight years now.

I was the author of a bill back in 2008 that talked about sanctions on a nuclear program that our intelligence community said didn't exist and had the President of the United States, president bush oppose me for two years.

And, by the way, so did Joe Biden on the floor of the Senate, and Barack Obama. I always say if you want to know what foreign policy position to take, find out what Joe Biden's position is and take the opposite opinion and you'll be right 100 percent of the time.

But they opposed me. He actively opposed me. We did pass that bill eventually at the end of 2006, and it was to fund the pro- democracy movement, $100 million a year. Here's what I said -- we need to get this -- these pro-American Iranians who are there, who want freedom, want democracy, and want somebody to help them and support them.

Well, we put -- we put some money out there and guess what? Barack Obama cut it when he came into office. And when the Green Revolution rose, the pro-democracy prose, we had nothing. We had no connection, no correlation and we did absolutely nothing to help them.

In the meantime, when the radicals in Egypt and the radicals in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood, when they rise against either a feckless leader or a friend of ours in Egypt, the president is more than happy to help them out.

When they're going up against a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel, that wants to dominate the radical Islamic world and take on the great Satan, the United States, we do nothing. That is a president that must go. And you want a leader who will take them on? I'll do that. 

Paul, ignoring the boos, said there's no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon, and went on to plea for a return to declarations of war: 

Now, if they are so determined to go to war, the only thing I plead with you for, if this is the case, is do it properly. Ask the people and ask the Congress for a declaration of war. This is war and people are going to die. And you have got to get a declaration of war.

And just to go and start fighting -- but the sanctions are already backfiring. And all that we do is literally doing the opposite. When we've been -- were attacked, we all came together. When we attacked the -- when we -- when we put them under attack, they get together and it neutralizes that. They rally around their leaders.

So what we're doing is literally enhancing their power. Think of the sanctions we dealt with Castro. Fifty years and Castro is still there. It doesn't work. So I would say a different approach. We need to at least -- we talked -- we talked to the Soviets during the Cuban crisis. We at least can talk to somebody who does not -- we do not have proof that he has a weapon. Why go to war so carelessly? 

Then came what Chuck Todd called the " first news of the debate", an extended discussion on Syria. However, when asked if he would support intervention against the Assad regime, Santorum seemed anxious to bring the discussion back to Iran:

Syria is a puppet state of Iran. They are a threat not just to Israel, but they have been a complete destabilizing force within Lebanon, which is another problem for Israel and Hezbollah. They are a country that we can do no worse than the leadership in Syria today, which is not the case, and some of the other countries that we readily got ourselves involved in.

So it's sort of remarkable to me we would have -- here again, it's -- I think it's the timidness (sic) of this president in dealing with the Iranian threat, because Syria and Iran is an axis. And the president -- while he couldn't reach out deliberately to Iran but did reach out immediately to Syria and established an embassy there. And the only reason he removed that embassy was because it was threatened of being -- of being overtaken, not because he was objecting to what was going on in Syria.

This president has -- has obviously a very big problem in standing up to the Iranians in any form. If this would have been any other country, given what was going on and the mass murders that we're seeing there, this president would have quickly and -- joined the international community, which is calling for his ouster and the stop of this, but he's not. He's not. Because he's afraid to stand up to Iran.

He opposed the sanctions in Iran against the -- against the central banks until his own party finally said, "You're killing us. Please support these sanctions."

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a president who isn't going to stop them. He isn't going to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. We need a new president or we are going to have a cataclysmic situation with a -- a power that is the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world that will be able to do so with impunity because they will have a nuclear weapon to protect -- protect them for whatever they do. It has to be stopped, and this president is not in a position to do that.

Gingrich used the Syria question to pivot to his energy plan: 

Well, the first thing I'd do, across the board for the entire region, is create a very dramatic American energy policy of opening up federal lands and opening up offshore drilling, replacing the EPA.

The Iranians have been practicing closing the Straits of Hormuz, which has one out of every five barrels of oil in the world going through it. We have enough energy in the United States that we would be the largest producer of oil in the world by the end of this decade. We would be capable of saying to the Middle East, "We frankly don't care what you do. The Chinese have a big problem because you ain't going to have any oil."

[...]

Second, we clearly should have our allies -- this is an old- fashioned word -- we have have our allies covertly helping destroy the Assad regime. There are plenty of Arab-speaking groups that would be quite happy. There are lots of weapons available in the Middle East.

And I agree with -- with Senator Santorum's point. This is an administration which, as long as you're America's enemy, you're safe.

You know, the only people you've got to worry about is if you're an American ally. 

Not sure if "allies" or "covertly" was the old-fashioned word Gingrich was referring to. 

Romney was the only one who actually advocated a position on intervention in Syria, and showed off his briefing on Syria's political ethnography:

We have very bad news that's come from the Middle East over the past several months, a lot of it in part because of the feckless leadership of our president. But one little piece of good news, and that is the key ally of Iran, Syria, is -- has a leader that's in real trouble. And we ought to grab a hold of that like it's the best thing we've ever seen.

There's things that are -- we're having a hard time getting our hands around, like, what's happening in Egypt. But in Syria, with Assad in trouble, we need to communicate to the Alawites, his friends, his ethnic group, to say, look, you have a future if you'll abandon that guy Assad.

We need to work with -- with Saudi Arabia and with Turkey to say, you guys provide the kind of weaponry that's needed to help the rebels inside Syria. This is a critical time for us.

If we can turn Syria and Lebanon away from Iran, we finally have the capacity to get Iran to pull back. And we could, at that point, with crippling sanctions and a very clear statement that military action is an action that will be taken if they pursue nuclear weaponry, that could change the course of world history. 

An exasperated Ron Paul tried again: 

I've tried the moral argument. I've tried the constitutional argument on these issues. And they don't -- they don't go so well. But there -- there's an economic argument, as well.

As a matter of fact, Al Qaida has had a plan to bog us down in the Middle East and bankrupt this country. That's exactly what they're doing. We've spent $4 trillion of debt in the last 10 years being bogged down in the Middle East.

The neoconservatives who now want us to be in Syria, want us to go to Iran, have another war, and we don't have the money. We're already -- today gasoline hit $6 a gallon in Florida. And we don't have the money. 

So there you have it. The first time Syria has come up in a presidential debate, it was taken as an opportunity by the candidates to talk about the Iranian nuclear program, offshore drilling, and the national debt. I won't claim these issues are unrelated, but surely it might be possible to actually talk about potential U.S. policy responses to the situation in Syria for a few minutes?

The war in Afghanistan wasn't discussed. Neither was trade or the eurozone crisis.  

 

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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