What did we learn last night at the GOP debate?....
On the defense budget, most candidates see how dangerous the sequestration cut of $600 billion from an already shrunken defense budget would prove for American national security. Romney was strongest here, citing several major weapons systems that either were shelved (F-22) or postponed (new long-range strategic bomber). Newt noted that whereas Apple goes through a technology cycle every 9 months, a Pentagon system takes 15 - 20 years to bring on line. Such cuts could derail promising high-tech super-weapon projects that would greatly leverage America's ability to project power globally. Near the end, Huntsman stressed our economic & budget problems. For these, entitlement reform is essential if the defense budget is to avoid being decimated.
On Iran, most candidates want a push for stepped-up sanctions, a move gaining bipartisan support in Congress; but Huntsman said it is too late for sanctions to stop Iran's nuclear quest. He aptly noted that Iran saw how Libya became vulnerable when it gave up its nukes, whereas North Korea is nearly invulnerable because it has them. Regarding sanctioning Iran's central bank, Perry was for it, but Gingrich warned that it could disrupt oil & financial markets; he called for more US production of domestic energy.
On Israel, Romney & Santorum would make a visit to Israel their first Presidential trip. Save for Ron Paul, all strongly support Israel.
On Syria, Perry called for imposition of a "no-fly" zone. Romney countered that Syria has 5,000 tanks, and thus a "no-drive" zone might be better. Glib, but control of airspace would make Syrian tanks sitting ducks in any major shooting war.
On Iraq, Bachmann worried that we are losing the peace. (Yesterday a top US general warned of a predicted spike in violence inside post-US Iraq, and its implications for the region's already unstable state and for Iran's ability to wield influence with Iraqi leaders.)
On Afghanistan, Santorum observed that Islamists tell locals that they will wait America out. Huntsman sees no advantage to keeping troop levels high, but Romney countered that the military thinks there is, and he would follow their counsel. Huntsman wryly noted that while we did the fighting & bleeding to topple the Taliban, the Chinese have won the mining concession.
On Pakistan, now negotiating with the Taliban insurgents, Bachmann had strong points about securing Pakistan's 15 (her number) nuke sites, and that there had been 6 (her number) attempts made already to steal nuclear material. Newt had the best line, saying that if killing bin Laden sent US-Pakistani relations to a new low, that should be the case.
On China, Huntsman, formerly Ambassador to China for President Obama, warned of the need to counter aggressive military & diplomatic moves by China.
On immigration, candidates were all over the lot. Several noted that Islamist terrorists are using the Mexican border to cross into the US. Perry called for a 21st century Monroe Doctrine, excluding Islamists from the Western Hemisphere. Everyone endorsed skilled immigration.
On homeland security, Bachmann called Obama's interrogation policy "outsourced to the ACLU." Santorum said of TSA that it should profile, and "find the bomber, not the bomb."
On energy, Bachmann noted the significance of the now-delayed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas & Oklahoma. This makes energy security a top jobs & economic growth issue for the GOP in 2012. N.B., I use "security" rather than "independence" because we can safely import energy from reliable suppliers (e.g., Canadian oil & gas, Australian uranium ore), if we can buy overseas cheaper; it is the Mideast oli-producers plus Venezuela who are not reliable suppliers.
Asked what unexpected national security exigency might occur during the next Presidential term, the best answer came from Newt. He named WMD in a US city (though hardly unexpected), cyberwar and an EMP attack--detonating a nuclear weapon high above the continental US, creating a series of intense electromagnetic pulses that could, in a worst case, knock out America's electric grid, and plunge the country into chaos.
Weakest of all were candidate answers on democracy. No one stressed clearly that we only need support liberal democracy; we do not need terrorist or Islamist democracy. No one used G. W. Bush's "concentrated work of generations" phrase from the 2005 Inaugural Address, to explain that this is a long-term project. Folks were too fuzzy here, throwing out "shining city on a hill" (Santorum, following Reagan), or Huntsman ("when our light shines, we can influence the world").
Bottom Line. This was the best debate I've seen, perhaps all the way back to the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates (which I watched as a teen). All questions were substantive, mostly coming from policy experts in the audience. There were no "gotcha" questions and no cringing gaffes. Wolf Blitzer of CNN did a fine job moderating. No grandstanding by questioners, and few grandstanding answers. (One encourages the other.) We need more shows like this.
Letter from the Capitol, LFTC, National security, Foreign Policy, Conservative Politics