Can the Republicans beat Obama on Foreign Policy?
As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took his spot as the latest frontrunner in the Republican race for the White House, the candidates assembled in their nation’s capital on Tuesday for the latest debate in this most chaotic of races, this time to discuss foreign policy. Previous debates have revolved mainly around domestic affairs, addressing the pressing issues of unemployment and the economy, alongside other matters such as healthcare and social security.
While these debates have been rife with criticism and contention between the candidates, ideology over broader policy measures has been fairly consistent, with mediators constantly being forced to bring up smaller and more divisive issues in order to stimulate more engaging debate. Indeed, up to this point, the televised debates have been characterized predominantly by the high-profile gaffes made by the candidates, rather than any sort of wholesale division over federal policy. Foreign policy, however, marks an interesting turning point, as it forces the Republican candidates to look beyond America’s borders and express a coherent world vision. Everyone knows their respective records on employment and the economy, but now is the time to test their knowledge on what is happening outside of their North American bubble.
The primary difficulties for the Republicans with regards to foreign policy lie in President Obama’s numerous successes in that area over the last year. Given the United States’ domestic circumstances, foreign policy is arguably the one domain in which Obama has managed to successfully assert himself as a leader, and it will remain his greatest legacy should he be defeated this time next year. In the location and elimination of Osama Bin Laden, aiding in the removal of Muammar Gaddafi without putting a single troop on the ground and the impending withdrawal of troops from Iraq at the end of this year, it appears that, at least overseas, Obama’s actions have been performed and received with universal approval.
In spite of this, however, Tuesday’s debate was fairly lively, with the candidates jostling over issues such as Iranian nuclear development, Syria, and illegal immigration. On the issue of Iran, Gingrich was certainly the most measured, showing why many have considered him the most consistent performer throughout this debate season. He rejected the suggestion of Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, and instead proposed covert action due to its deniability and potential to undermine the Iranian regime. Herman Cain was less convincing, backing up his advocacy for Israeli strikes with some questionable geographical knowledge. On Pakistan, candidates managed to reach a fair amount of consensus, with Michele Bachman referring the vulnerability of their nuclear facilities to terrorism, and Rick Perry taking the popular step of proposing that the United States withdraw aid from the country.
Immigration was the issue that ended up grabbing the most headlines, with Gingrich’s proposal of a “humane” approach to illegal immigration, even in spite of his concession that this would be an unpopular view for conservatives. The post-9/11 response to terrorism was also a hotly debated topic, with moderate candidate Ron Paul suggesting that there is inherent strain of anti-patriotism in the Patriot Act, which effectively eases restrictions on authorities when investigating terrorist activity.
In spite of Gingrich’s unexpected rise, Mitt Romney is still seen as the man to beat. While perhaps slightly subdued during this debate, he still managed to attack Gingrich on immigration, and provide a measured response to the Iranian issue by suggesting that the United States impose crippling sanctions before condoning any military action. In many ways, it is Romney’s somewhat passive nature that has seen him poll the most consistently throughout this race. His lack of an “oops” moment like Perry’s, and his avoidance of the type of scandal that has harmed Cain’s campaign is effectively what has sustained him, and it means that he has been able to watch the rapid rise and fall of his contenders along the way while managing to continue his well-funded campaign away from the media’s immediate spotlight. The topic of Foreign Affairs is just the latest issue in which Romney has been able to sit back and watch his opponents tear themselves apart.
This debate, though, is not one that will still be being talked about a year from now. It is unlikely that foreign policy will be the key issue come next November, with the economy still sure to be dominating public debate. Unemployment remains dangerously high, and the financial crisis impacts upon Obama’s presidency more and more each day. If the Republicans are to have any chance of gaining control of the White House, it will be this that they must ruthlessly exploit in order to ensure that Barack Obama becomes a one-term president.