REACTION ROUNDUP: GOP Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy

Mike Brownfield /

North Korea: A Neglected National Security Threat
- Bruce Klingner

It’s hard to overlook half of the globe, but that’s what happened during the Republican presidential debate on national security. Despite the critical importance of Asia to U.S. economic and security interests, the region was largely ignored. China was mentioned only in passing during the candidates’ closing remarks, and there was no mention of America’s economic partners and treaty allies.

Iran’s continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons figured prominently in the evening’s debate, with wide-ranging discussions on the impact on regional security, particularly for U.S. ally Israel. Unfortunately, North Korea’s existing weapons programs, which are a far more developed security threat than Tehran’s, were not addressed.

North Korea already has six to eight nuclear weapons and 1,000 missiles that threaten South Korea, Japan, and U.S bases in Okinawa and Guam. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in January 2011 that North Korea could hit the United States with a nuclear weapon by 2015.

Pyongyang has historically proven to be most dangerous when it is ignored. During the past three years, the North Korean regime attacked South Korea twice and continues to threaten war against the United States and its allies.

North Korea is currently engaged in a periodic charm offensive as it seeks large-scale food aid and economic assistance. But Kim Jong-il will inevitably return to provocative behavior if he fails to gain his objectives through peaceful means. President Obama discovered early on that offering to engage Pyongyang did not prevent North Korea’s belligerent behavior.

The next U.S. President could face a North Korean crisis early in his or her Administration. It would be worthwhile to discern whether the Republican candidates have a plan for dealing with Pyongyang before one of them potentially becomes commander in chief.

Security in Latin America: One of Our Nation’s Greatest Threats?
- Jessica Zuckerman

In tonight’s Republican presidential debate, we heard several mentions of Latin America as the candidates came together to discuss our nation’s most pressing foreign policy and national security issues. Not surprisingly, talk of our Western Hemisphere neighbors arose in discussion of the relationship between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as in debate over the ever-present menace of Mexican criminal cartels.

Yet, debate over American foreign policy and Latin America did not end there. As the event drew to a close and candidates were asked to highlight what they saw as the most significant threat to the United States that was not being discussed, the issue of this region’s security was raised.

Last week, Heritage had the pleasure to welcome Central America’s ambassadors to the stage for a discussion of Next Steps Toward Central American Security. Throughout each of the ambassadors’ remarks, a common theme emerged of a strong desire to work with the United States to build a more secure and stable Western Hemisphere. America’s present and future leaders would be wise to listen to the ambassadors’ calls and seek to build upon and expand existing security partnerships throughout the region.

With the war on drugs in Mexico raging on and brutality and violence rampant throughout much of the region, Latin American security is an issue the United States cannot afford to ignore.

Iran Policy Featured Prominently in Republican Presidential Debate
- James Phillips

U.S. policy regarding Iran emerged as a key focal point of tonight’s debate due to the growing threat posed by Iran’s accelerating nuclear weapons program and support for terrorism. All the candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) agreed that Iran’s Islamist regime poses a threat to U.S. national security, and several mentioned Iran’s growing ties with Venezuela and support for Hezbollah activity in Latin America. All agreed that the United States needs to do more to ratchet up sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear program, although Jon Huntsman noted that sanctions alone would not work because China and Russia “won’t play ball.”

Michele Bachmann criticized President Obama’s lack of leadership on Iran and called for energy independence as a means of reducing Iran’s oil power. Newt Gingrich said that to get serious about Iran would require a major expansion of U.S. energy production to reduce Iran’s leverage over oil-importing U.S. allies, and he maintained that any use of military force should be a last resort tied to regime change in Iran, not just targeted at Iran’s nuclear program. Mitt Romney stressed that tough action against Iran could be costly in terms of higher gasoline prices at home, but that a nuclear Iran ultimately would exact even greater costs.

The candidates clashed more directly over U.S. policy toward Syria, with Rick Perry calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone, which most other candidates said was unnecessary or premature. Most supported stronger sanctions against Syria but not U.S. military action at this time, with Paul dismissing a no-fly zone as “just looking for more trouble.” The only subject that all agreed on was that the Obama Administration had botched U.S. Middle East policy.

China, Defense, and the Republican Candidates
- Dean Cheng

With the conclusion of the second debate focusing on foreign policy, the Republican candidates again faced few questions regarding China or Asia. Coming on the heels of President Obama’s series of summits and meetings in Australia and Indonesia, it is somewhat surprising that no one raised the issue of Asian policy with any of the candidates.

This situation is unlikely to last beyond the primaries. Once the Republican field is whittled down to a single opponent against President Obama, there will likely be aired a range of concerns, from Chinese currency and exchange rate policies to the growing assertiveness of Chinese foreign policy toward its neighbors, many of which are also U.S. allies and friends.

The U.S. defense budget, which was raised in the course of the debate, will influence American policy toward China. With the failure of the “super committee,” the path is now set for sequestration and defense budget cuts in the $500 billion to $650 billion range. On top of the previously administered $450 billion cut, the Department of Defense is looking at $1 trillion in cuts in the coming years, which will inevitably affect recruiting, acquisition, training, maintenance, and R&D. Disappointingly, while almost all of the candidates said they deplored the projected cuts, no clear policy was enunciated by any of them about how they would deal with such slash-and-burn policies. In the absence of specifics, it is an open question how the Republican field would deal with the impact of budget cuts on the U.S. military posture in Asia, specifically its ability to respond to Chinese moves.

Nonetheless, what did come through from the debate is a broad consensus that current U.S. foreign policy is rudderless and lackluster. No matter who eventually wins the nomination, it appears clear that, should a Republican win in 2012, American foreign policy will follow a new and different path.

Reality Check: GOP Debate
- James Jay Carafano

One thing that should be abundantly clear after listening to all the issues raised in the debate is that America can’t be defended on the cheap. Regardless of what the candidates said tonight, the reality is that if one of them takes office, he or she will be commander in chief of a military that is under-funded and under-powered. President Obama has already put enough cuts on the table to leave the military smaller and less capable than when he took office.

Changing the trajectory of the U.S. military will require investing in the military and dealing with our fiscal crisis. This debate gave each candidate an opportunity to make a case for being up to the job.

Why Europe Matters to the Next President
- Sally McNamara

Europe didn’t come up as an issue with the GOP presidential candidates tonight, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority for them. They should be careful not to neglect America’s historic alliances across the Atlantic the way President Obama has.

The next U.S. Administration must focus on revitalizing America’s bilateral alliances with key European nations, especially the Anglo-American Special Relationship. Despite the European debt crisis dominating most discussions of Euro-American relations of late, the transatlantic relationship is bigger than the EU, and it is certainly far too important to tie to the future of a single European currency.

The next U.S. Administration shouldn’t neglect America’s bilateral alliances; in fact, the next Administration should invest the bulk of its time and attention to reinforcing them. Working closely with the U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, and other European nations, the United States will find that its closest partners in defending its many global interests are just across the Atlantic. America’s interests are common to Europe as well—including countering terrorism, preventing nuclear proliferation, promoting economic freedom, supporting democracy, preventing the redrawing of borders by force, and creating free energy markets in the world.

The United States and the nations of Europe share a common commitment to peace, justice, security, democracy, and freedom. Ensuring that its enduring alliances in Europe are maintained must be on the next Administration’s agenda.

Missile Defense Glaringly Absent from Debate
- Baker Spring

It is disappointing that missile defense did not come up in the Republican presidential national security debate in Washington. The debate over missile defense is not just about fielding another weapons system, because the matter of whether the U.S. will pursue a truly effective capability in this area speaks to a more fundamental policy issue.

During most of the Cold War, the United States chose not to field effective missile defenses, because its prevailing policy determined that leaving itself and its allies vulnerable to nuclear-armed missile attack strengthened stability. In a world where the proliferation of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery systems are looming, such vulnerability becomes a major source of instability. In short, Cold War notions that equate vulnerability with strategic stability are seriously flawed.

Any serious presidential candidate must address this issue of new formulas for strategic stability in a proliferating world. The proper alternative to Cold War policy is one based on the United States defending itself and its allies against strategic attacks to the best of its ability. A declared commitment by any of the candidates to field a robust missile defense capability would have been the best means for signaling a change in policy toward supporting a more defensive strategic posture. All the Republican presidential candidates missed an important opportunity to state that they recognize the need for this fundamental change in strategic policy.