GOP Candidates to Clash on Foreign Policy

Tonight’s debate is the first since Newt Gingrich rose to the top of the pack and luckily for him, it is about foreign policy and national security. The dividing lines will be on the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, foreign aid, and China.

Newt Gingrich will emphasize that he’s a historian and that he’s the longest-serving teacher of a Joint War Fighting class for generals and admirals. He was arguably the winner of the last debate on foreign policy and will likely do well again. His policy towards Iran is one of regime change, calling for an adaptation of the model used to bring down the Soviet Union.  The persecution of Christians in the Islamic world will be mentioned and it is probable he’ll repeat his pledge to sign an executive order enabling the U.S. embassy in Israel to move to Jerusalem.

Gingrich’s weak point will be his convoluted position on the war in Libya. On March 7, he called for immediately establishing a no-fly zone, only to say on March 23, “I would not have intervened. I would not have used American & European forces.” He then said that he meant that if he were president, military intervention wouldn’t have been necessary because he would have used covert action against Gaddafi.

That explanation would be acceptable if the contradictions ended there. He said that the rationale for the war made no sense and that it was motivated by “opportunism and news media publicity.” Yet he criticized President Obama for making the U.S. look weak by being too soft on Gaddafi. Also, by his own admission, Gingrich favored action against the Libyan dictator. He said that anything less than Gaddafi’s removal would look like a defeat for the U.S., but then he supported cutting off funding for the war because President Obama violated the War Powers Act. These stances can be delicately synthesized, but it won’t be easy to do so in a coherent sound bite.

If Gingrich’s rivals want to attack him rather than wait to see if the media spotlight brings him down, he can be criticized by Bachmann for supporting intervention; by Santorum for opposing the war; and by all for flip-flopping.

Mitt Romney’s strongest point on foreign policy has been China, where his economic expertise and knowledge of foreign policy intersect. He will again vow to label China as a currency manipulator and to report them to the World Trade Organization. Like Gingrich, he has been unclear on Libya. He criticized Obama for waiting too long to intervene but then described regime change as “mission creep and mission muddle.” This could be another flip-flop that his opponents list.

Romney’s biggest weakness is on Afghanistan. It was very surprising that none of his rivals pounced on him during the last debate when he criticized Obama’s policy but then endorsed the timeline to withdraw all combat forces by 2014. The only difference is that Romney would bring home the additional troops that were sent as part of the surge next December, not September -- a difference of only three months. It will be shocking if they pass up the opportunity again.

Herman Cain has to perform very well or he is at risk of never being taken seriously again as a commander-in-chief. His last foreign policy debate performance was widely panned. His gaffe  on Libya was more unsettling than Perry’s senior moment.  He appeared not to know that China has nuclear weapons. He asked Floridians how to talk in “Cuban.” He stated that we “need a leader, not a reader.” And that’s just what’s happened this month.