Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman held their Lincoln-Douglass-style debate on Monday in New Hampshire, though it was less of a “debate” and more like an expert panel. The topic was foreign policy and national security and it was Huntsman’s best performance to date. He rattled off names, dates, locations, types of aircraft, the number of ships in the post-World War II navy, etc. For the first time, a candidate matched Gingrich’s depth of knowledge.
The first topic was Afghanistan and Pakistan. Huntsman wants to end the counter-insurgency and nation-building campaign, leaving behind only a force to gather intelligence, fight terrorists, and train the Afghan army. He recalled a conversation he had with President Hamid Karzai, where the Afghan leader said the West doesn’t understand what it is like to govern a tribal country. Gingrich did not challenge Huntsman on his plan to withdraw faster than President Obama. Huntsman said that Pakistan is at risk of becoming a failed state and described its relationship with the U.S. as “transactional.” He complained that U.S. aid to Pakistan is doing nothing to stem anti-Americanism there. The U.S. should put greater emphasis on its relationship with India, he argued.
Huntsman won the discussion on Afghanistan, as Gingrich did not add anything on the topic. Instead, he argued that the U.S. is not safer since 9/11, and he pivoted to the Middle East. He talked about the depletion of the Christian population in Iraq and the Obama administration’s removal of the word “Islam” from counter-terrorism training materials, calling it a “willful denial of reality on a scale that is breathtaking.”
He called for an energy independence program to make the U.S. the world’s energy reserve, for rebuilding our manufacturing capabilities, for improving our intelligence community so we don’t have to rely on foreign governments, and for a national strategy to defeat radical Islam. He called Iran the leading promoter of Shiite extremism and Saudi Arabia the leading promoter of Sunni extremism.
The next topic was Iran, where Gingrich bested Huntsman. Gingrich said that the U.S. can let Iran get nukes, pursue regime change, or undertake costly military action every 4 years to delay its nuclear program. He ridiculed the idea that the U.S. can know how far away Iran is from a nuclear weapon and simply wait until the last moment. Gingrich argued that if the U.S. does not take part in an Israeli military action, Israel might be forced to use nuclear weapons.
Interestingly, he mentioned the recent D.C. court ruling that Iran’s training of al-Qaeda enabled the group to carry out the 1998 embassy bombings. This ruling received little press coverage, and shows how closely Gingrich follows these developments. Gingrich suggested taking advantage of Iran’s dependency upon gasoline imports and providing “every dissident” with communications equipment and other non-military aid to help them challenge the regime.
Huntsman didn’t offer much additional input on the topic, except to say that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and possibly Egypt will also acquire nukes if Iran does. He expressed doubt that China and Russia will ever approve meaningful U.N. sanctions, and called Iran the “transcendent issue” for the next decade.