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South Carolina GOP Debate: Waterboarding, Foreign Aid and Iran…

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The CBS News/National Journal debate between GOP Presidential hopefuls, held Saturday, November 12th in Spartanburg, South Carolina, focused on foreign policy, and shed light on some significant differences between the candidates. Additionally, moderators Scott Pelley of CBS and Major Garrett (that is his name, and not his rank) of National Journal were a substantial improvement from the moderators CNBC featured in the Wednesday economic debate in Michigan: neither Mr Pelley nor Mr Garrett featured the synthetic histrionics of a Jim Cramer or the eye rolls of Maria Bartiromo. The one trip up came early, when Scott Pelley insisted former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had used up his time. Mr Romney protested, noting the yellow warning light was still on, and Mr Pelley promptly apologized and let Mr Romney finish. Both moderators did a good job keeping candidates within their alloted time. Strangely (and confusingly, for many), the debate lasted ninety minutes, however only sixty minutes were aired on television, the final half-hour pre-empted by NCIS.

Moderators Scott Pelley (CBS) and Major Garrett (National Journal) proved a significant upgrade over the CNBC moderators

The entire ninety minutes was streamed at the CBS News site, however the accompanying live comment stream showed a great many people complaining about cut outs and generally poor reception of the stream (no such problems were encountered on our feed of the stream, however we’re on a 25 Mbs fibre optic line).

Notably, the candidates were not given anywhere near equal time during this debate, with, most notably Ron Paul (but Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann) spending long periods without getting a chance to speak to a question.

The debate featured some interesting responses from the candidates, to be sure.

Here, then, is a brief overview of the candidates’ performances (we’ve noted each candidate’s position on “nation building”, foreign aid, war with Iran, torture/”waterboarding”, and whether the president is permitted to unilaterrally assassinate United States citizens):

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry fared fairly well, by his standards (that is, however, a particularly low bar indeed). There were no overt mistakes (other than referring to House Represenatative Ron Paul as “Senator” at one point).

Governor Perry seems to be peeking at Dr Paul’s playbook a lot these days: in the prior debate, his now infamous brain cramp occurred as he unveiled his “lite” version of Ron Paul’s plan to eliminate five Departments (Perry’s plan instead prososes to eliminate three). This time, Mr Perry pledged to start all foreign aid at “zero”, which sounds remarkably similar to Mr Paul’s plan to eliminate foreign aid entirely, but differs materially on the details. For example, candidate Perry pledges not to cut all foreign aid, but to evaluate the amount each year. As he was laying out his plan, his aides were simultaneously tweeting assurances that Israel would certainly qualify and continue to receive significant funds from United States tax payers. Things like this continue to reveal Mr Perry for what he is: a politician who wants desperately to say the “right things” to appeal to voters, while being rather steadfastly committed to the status quo (see too his spending record in as Governor of Texas, whereby he has increased state spending by over 80% during his time in office but continues to attempt to portray himself as the “real conservative” and fiscally responsible).

On the issue of torture, Mr Perry again hedged, first stating he opposes torture, but then saying he favors anything which will “save young American lives” and further stated, “This is war. That is what happens in war.” The takeaway, yet again, was that Governor Perry wants to say the thing which will appeal the most, and if he does not get the requisite applause with his first answer, he is willing to try another.

While Mr Perry did not have a gaffe such as that he exhibited in Michigan, he continues to struggle to communicate. For example, at one point he stated, “This whole issue of allowing cyber security to go on”; he presumably meant “cyber attacks”.

Nation building: unknown.

Foreign aid: Yes, and substantial aid to Israel, but he will “zero out” aid in the beginning and re-evaluate. “Obviously Israel is a special ally and my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level”.

War with Iran: unknown.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes, sometimes: “That is what happens in war.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Rick Santorum

The most hawkish of all the GOP Presidential hopefuls, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum argued the case in favor of continuing financial aid to Pakistan, claiming their possession of nuclear weapons makes it imperative that they remain the United States’ “friends” (“Pakistan must be our friend”). There are a few fundmental problems with this position:

  • maintaining a flow of substantial money (approaching $20 billion over the past decade) to Pakistan to “help fight terrorism” does not motivate Pakistan to eliminate “terrorism” – quite the opposite, since absent the threat of “terrorism”, the money spigot will be turned off. If anything, it encourages Pakistan to make it appear as though they are fighting “terrorism” but never actually reduce it much, such that the perceived threat remains and the money keeps flowing. This is precisely what appears to be happening.
  • the argument that the United States tax payer should go to work for some small part of each day for the purpose of having the fruits of his or her labor sent to what is, effectively, a military dictatorship might be a tough sell in the midst of a severe economic downturn.
  •  the argument that possession of nuclear weapons entitles a nation to the economic support and “friendship” of the United States is great motivation for other countries to obtain nuclear weapons – this type of policy is an overt incentive for other countries to pursue nuclear armaments.

Mr Santorum further argued that foreign aid is “all spent in the United States”, “creates jobs” and “creates dependency on our weapons systems”. It is an interesting argument in favor of “sovereign welfare”: the ends justify the means.

One of the most telling remarks from Mr Santorum came when he described how he would build his team: “I’ll get together people that will share my point of view…I didn’t hire people who didn’t share how I approached the problem.” This is a very dangerous approach, because it risks “group think”, and the absence of opposing view points in a discussion of options means important options may go unexplored. Most senior leaders struggle against people simply telling them what they think the leader wants to hear. Surrounding oneself with a team of people who agree is not a mark of effective leadership.

Nation building: Yes.

Foreign aid: Yes.

War with Iran: Yes: “As more sanctions and, and, and providing, you know, more support for pro-democracy movement isn’t going to be enough in time.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann didn’t mince words: she came out in favor of “waterboarding” and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture), decried the notion that the Central Intelligence Agency is “run by the ACLU” (American Civil Liberties Union) and claimed torture produces results (there is considerable evidence that torture, and specifically “waterboarding”, is not an effective interrogation technique, including a report from the CIA, as well as a book by a former FBI interrogator, Ali H. Soufan, who calls such techniques “unnecessary and counterproductive”).

Representative Bachmann’s answer came in response to this question, from Stephen Schafroth of Oregon:

“I served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. I believe that torture is always wrong in all cases. What is your stance on torture?”

It should seem obvious that the task of peddling notions of freedom and liberty and decency to other nations, or to hold other governmnts accountable for their humanitarian misdeeds, is made the more difficult when one engages in torture or indefinite imprisonment without trial. Thirty years ago it would have been hard to imagine the United States, as a matter of governmental policy, torturing people, or “rendering” people to other nations for torture by proxy, or ordering the assassination of United States citizens absent a trial or declaration of war, all the while trumpeting “American Exceptionalism”.

Mrs Bachmann also came out in favor of foreign aid, with no preconditions, and, like Rick Santorum, particularly favors aid to Pakistan.

At one point, Representative Bachmann stated, “It seems that the table is being set for world wide nuclear war against Israel.”

Interestingly, prior to the debate, Mrs Bachmann’s team was inadvertently copied in on an email from CBS Political Director John Dickerson in which Dickerson stated that Representative Bachmann won’t be asked many questions. So much for equal time requirements (see too the limited questions and time allotted Representative Ron Paul).

Nation building: unknown.

Foreign aid: Yes.

War with Iran: unknown.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes. “I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Herman Cain

Former lobbyist and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain had his weakest outing of all the debates thus far – as we previosly noted, he seems far out of his depth on matters outside the economy, or when retreat to his “nine nine nine” tax plan is impossible.

Mr Cain attempted a cautious approach, exhibiting none of the flair or charisma of prior debates. Instead, he appeared nervous, and glanced frequently at his notes. He made it a point to mention there are nine nuclear nations, presumably to make up for his prior comments whereby he appeared unaware China has a nuclear arsenal.

On the issue of “waterboarding”, Mr Cain stated he does not consider it to be torture. It would have made for an interesting moment had the moderators asked those candidates who do not consider “waterboarding” torture whether they would be willing to put their money where their mouth is and be “waterboarded” live on television.

On the question of Pakistan: friend or foe, Mr Cain replied, “We don’t know” and called for the relationship to be re-evaluated.

On the question of on what basis Mr Cain would decide to over-rule his advising Generals, Herman Cain gave a long, meandering reply which contained no real substance.

Nation building: Yes. Favors “assisting the opposition movement that’s trying to overthrow the regime”.

Foreign aid: Yes.

War with Iran: “Not at this time”, but would move “ballistic missile defense war ships” to the area.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes. “I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique”.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul showed stark differences with all the other candidates (except former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who had similar positions) on foreign policy, coming out in favor of the rule of law, the requirement of Congressional approval for any acts of war, against torture and opposed to an invasion or sanctions against Iran. In past debates, Dr Paul has been booed for his foreign policy positions; in this debate, he came across as the voice of reason (it’s worth pointing out Mr Paul has received more campaign contributions from members of the military than all the other candidates, plus President Obama, combined).

Nation building: No.

Foreign aid: No aid to any countries.

War with Iran: No.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: No. “Torture is illegal by our laws. It’s illegal by international laws…waterboarding is torture…there is no evidence you really get reliable evidence…it is really un-American to accept on principle that we would torture people we capture”.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: No.

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney continued his steady performance in these debates (with the one notable exception of the Las Vegas debate, where he appeared to lose his cool under attack by Mr Perry). Mr Romney came out firmly against negotiating with the Taliban.

Nation building: Yes. “It’s worth working with insurgents in the country to encourage regime change in the country” in Iran.

Foreign aid: unknown.

War with Iran: Yes. Claims President should have “built credible threat of military action”. “Of course you take military action”.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: unknown.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: Yes. “Absolutely.”

Jon Huntsman

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman had, by far, his best debate performance to date (that is, admittedly, rather a low bar).

Mr Huntsman came out strongly against a trade war with China, made an impassioned case against torture, and generally came across as well-versed in matters foreign.

Nation building: No. Specifically came out against “nation building” and claimed those resources could be better used domestically.

Foreign aid: unknown.

War with Iran: No.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: No. “We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture. We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries and we lose that ability to project values that a lot of countries in corners of the world rely upon us to stand up for.”

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: unknown.

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was in his usual sardonic form, starting his first answer with, “There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb, and the administration skipped all the smart ones.” He also came out in favor of “maximum covert operations, all of them deniable”, which elicited laughs from the audience.

Mr Gingrich expressed his concerns that the “Arab Spring may become an anti-Christian Spring” and called for the State Department to intervene on behalf of Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Asked to evaluate Mitt Romney’s abilities to “think outside the box and change United States’ national security or foreign policy perspectives”, Mr Gingrich flatly refused, and when pressed on why he brought the matter up on a radio show the prior day but refused to address it during the debate, he said, “I brought it up yesterday because I was on a national radio show”.

Nation building: Yes.

Foreign aid: Appears to be in favor of foreign aid, but agreed with Rick Perry that foreign aid should be “rethought”.

War with Iran: Yes.

Torture/”Waterboarding”: Yes.

President can unilaterally assassinate United States citizens: Yes. Mr Gingrich argued that it is permitted if a secret “panel” finds the person guilty.

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