The simplistic hawkish approach to foreign affairs by the Republican candidates for president reflects a lack of sophistication and thoughtfulness about the nation's role in the world. Too many of them indicated during Saturday night's debate that they would be willing to engage the American military against Iran and embrace the use of waterboarding against terror suspects. After two wars that have strained the armed forces and a healthy debate over the use of torture during the Bush era, the Republicans too often sounded off-key and out of touch with reality.
The lively debate, moderated by Scott Pelley of CBS News and Major Garrett of the National Journal, suggested the frontrunners are irresponsible or ill-informed. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich would commit U.S. troops to military action in Iran if other strategies such as sanctions and covert disruptions did not deter the country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Romney agreed that it is worth going to war with Iran to prevent a nuclear Iran.
Beyond the clear stances of Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, the candidates seemed to have little appreciation for just how war-weary Americans are after more than 10 years in Afghanistan and nearly as long in Iraq. The puffed-up saber rattling of Romney and Gingrich dismissed the trillions of dollars that modern warfare costs and the thousands of American lives put at risk.
Huntsman was the most cautiously thoughtful about American military adventurism. He called for an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, saying that our nation has "achieved its key objectives," including free elections, dismantling al-Qaida, and killing Osama bin Laden. "I don't want to be nation building in Afghanistan, when this nation so desperately needs to be built," Huntsman said, channeling what so many Americans feel and what so few of his Republican challengers seem to understand.
Huntsman also was the voice of reason when the conversation turned to the use of torture and waterboarding of terror suspects, calling it an affront to the "values that we project." Paul, too, was appalled at the notion, calling it "illegal," "uncivilized" and "un-American." But other candidates demonstrated they had learned nothing from America's crumbling moral authority during the Bush administration when prisoners were handed over to the CIA for abusive treatment, including the use of waterboarding, a torture technique in both international and domestic law. Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann explicitly approved of waterboarding, with Bachmann absurdly going so far as to claim that President Barack Obama's decision to abandon abusive CIA interrogations has meant "we want to lose in the war on terror." There was no push-back by Romney on this point.
Answers about foreign aid, an essential component of America's strategic promotion of its geopolitical and economic interests, offered the final testament to some of the candidates' ignorance. Rick Perry called for reconsidering foreign aid to Pakistan, and requiring every country to justify every penny of the aid it receives, including Israel — a stance readily agreed to by Gingrich and Romney. Perry and the rest were feeding into the misconception that America spends a large chunk of the federal budget on foreign aid, when it constitutes about 1 percent of the budget. Moreover, the United States has long-standing commitments to Israel on military aid, which the Republican candidates didn't seem to know.
Foreign policy often takes a back seat in campaigns for president, particularly when the economy is anemic and unemployment remains the top issue. Yet foreign policy consumes much of any president's time, and the world is more complicated than ever. Saturday night's debate reinforced how much the Republican front-runners have to learn, and how voters will have to hold them accountable for their eagerness to go to war and torture enemies.