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.
The third topic was the Arab Spring, a round that was won by Gingrich. Huntsman said the U.S. shouldn’t pick sides without knowing “who will be up or down” and stood opposed to the intervention in Libya. He indicated he could support some sort of intervention in Syria, saying Assad poses a national security risk that Gaddafi didn’t. He then pivoted to China and how its leaders feared their own uprising and banned his name from the Internet.
Gingrich criticized the Obama administration for turning against Mubarak, and said it makes the U.S. look like an unreliable ally. He spoke about the need for an ideological war against radical Islam that includes promoting women’s rights, entrepreneurship, and supporters of modernity so that the next generation “understands something other than Sharia.” Translation of books into Arabic, scholarships for education in the U.S., and other means of soft-power would be used in this long-range strategy.
The fourth topic was defense spending. Gingrich also won this portion, calling himself a “cheap hawk.” He railed against the waste in the Pentagon, noting how Apple churns out new products so quickly while it takes up to 20 years to develop a new weapons system. He opined that $500 billion per year could be saved if the government is modernized and said our military posture needs to be changed, pointing out how the U.S. still has bases in Germany when there’s no more Soviet Union.
Huntsman warned of the U.S. heading down the path of Greece, Italy, and Japan because of debt, and agreed with Gingrich on changing our military posture around the world. In an impressive display of knowledge, he said there are 700 military installations in 60 countries, including 50,000 troops in 20 installations in Germany. He said that more resources need to go to the Asia-Pacific theater where three-fourths of our trade comes from.
The final topic was China, and Huntsman dominated. Gingrich readily admitted that Huntsman knows “far more than me about China.” Huntsman said the U.S.-Chinese relationship will define the century and that “we’re the best short-term tactical thinkers,” but the Chinese are the best “long-term strategic thinkers.” He mentioned the upcoming reshuffling of the Chinese leadership, saying that it will be the biggest change since 1949 and will bring in a new generation of nationalistic leaders who believe that China’s “time has arrived.”
Huntsman also struck a note of optimism. He said that China’s economic growth is slowing, and in the future the U.S. will be a more attractive place to invest in. He predicted that China’s government will face increasing internal challenges as there are 500 million Internet users and 80 million bloggers. He pointed out that bloggers are now able to criticize the government and call for freedom when they would have been jailed for it only a few years ago.
Gingrich said that the relationship between the American and Chinese people is more important than the relationship between the governments, and that the U.S. must challenge the authoritarianism of the Chinese government. He mentioned a study that found that South Carolina and Alabama will be less expensive to manufacture in than China by 2015. He said the U.S. must focus more on naval and air power in order to compete with China, as well as focus on threats from EMP, cyber, and space technology. Gingrich feels it is essential that the American education system encourages skills in math and science.
Overall, it was an impressive display from two knowledgeable candidates and both gained from the event.