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CBS’s Republican presidential debate on foreign policy Saturday evening largely lacked the gaffes and awkward stumbles that have dogged previous forums. (Although Rick Perry, always managing to stand out in some controversial way, set off an Internet frenzy when he suggested cutting all foreign aid “to zero,” even for Israel.) For the most part, the candidates tried to stay on topic, discussing their positions on everything from the war in Afghanistan to waterboarding.
Here are some of the highlights:
Mitt Romney opened the debate by coming out swinging against President Barack Obama, accusing the president of not taking forceful enough action to stop Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon. Romney says he supports “crippling” sanctions against the nation along with covert action to help build the opposition forces within the country. “If all else fails,” Romney said. “Of course you take military action. It’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
He boldly predicted: “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”
Rival Herman Cain was more cautious, saying he would prefer working with the resistance movement before involving the US military in the region. “A regime change is what they are trying to achieve,” he said.
Ron Paul stuck to his strong anti-war stance, saying the reports of the rising nuclear threat in Iran reminded him of the “propaganda” surrounding the alleged weapons of mass destruction before the war in Iraq. He also said that any action would require approval from Congress.
“You get a declaration of war, you fight it and you get it over with,” he said, prompting strong applause from the audience.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, who is surging in the polls, said: “There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb, and the (Obama) administration has managed to skip over all the ways to be smart.”
Regarding Israel, Pakistan and Foreign Aid
When answering a question on the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan, Perry called for temporarily cutting all foreign aid “to zero” and then asking countries to make the case on why they should get U.S. assistance.
Perry also questioned whether Pakistan even deserved foreign aid because “they’re not being honest with us.”
Perry’s comments prompted an impassioned speech — and a heavy dose of realism — from Michele Bachmann who pointed out that it’s in the U.S.’s interest to maintain a cordial relationship with Pakistan because it has nuclear weapons. “This is a very dangerous time,” she said. Bachmann also expressed concern that Obama isn’t doing enough to support Israel.
“The table is being set for a World War III against Israel,” she said. “Obama has been willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street, but he hasn’t been able to stand with Israel.”
In regards to Pakistan, Romney said the U.S. must continue to work with its allies in the country to fight terrorism. “We have to work with our friends in that country to get them to do some of the things we can’t do ourselves,” he said “Announcing at a stage like this that as president, we would throw our troops into Pakistan could be highly incendiary. Right now, they’re comfortable with our using drones to go after the people that are representing the greatest threat.”
When pressed further, Romney added: “We have an agreement with the people we need to have an agreement with to be able to use drones to strike at the people that represent a threat,” he said.
Regarding the Use of Torture
Cain was the first candidate at the debate asked to explain his position on the use of torture. He first stated that he did not “agree with torture. Period.” Then he added a caveat: He supported waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” (Both Bachmann and Perry agreed.)
Paul and Jon Huntsman voiced strong opposition to waterboarding. Paul said: “Torture is illegal by our laws and by international laws. Waterboarding is torture…It’s also immoral and impractical.”
Regarding Troops in Afghanistan
Bachmann said Obama “dithered” by failing to send in more troops to Afghanistan and now he’s making is “a very fatal decision” by setting a timeline to withdraw from the country by next September.
Huntsman, meanwhile, said he believed that troops should be reduced in the region, while intelligence officers stay on to train local forces.
“I take a different approach on Afghanistan,” he said. “I think it’s time to come home. I say this nation has achieved its key objectives in Afghanistan: We had free elections in 2004, we uprooted the Taliban, we have dismantled Al Qaeda, and we killed Osama bin Laden.”
He added: “I say this nation’s future is not Afghanistan,” he said. “This nation’s future is not Iraq. This nation’s future is how prepared we are to meet the 21st century’s competitive challenges. That’s economics, that’s education. I don’t want to be nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so needs to be built.”
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