Republicans Remain Unclear on Foreign Policy

The GOP candidates couldn't push past their oversimplified campaign talking points at Saturday's National Journal-CBS debate in South Carolina

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Herman Cain sums up his world view in an all-too-simple phrase: "Peace through strength and clarity," he tells adoring audiences every day. "Clarify who our friends are and clarify who our enemies are."

Easy for Cain to say until faced at Saturday night's foreign policy debate with a question about Pakistan: Friend or enemy, Mr. Cain?

"We don't know," he said at the debate sponsored by National Journal and CBS. "There is a lot of clarity missing."

And so it went throughout the debate: There was a lot of clarity missing. The Republican presidential field struggled to align their oversimplified campaign trail applause lines with the harder real-world choices they faced Saturday night -- and would be required to handle as president.

The one clear signal they did send: Ousting Democratic Barack Obama would lead to a hard--line swing in the White House.

-- Two of the top-tier candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, said they would support war against Iran if that's what it took to keep nuclear weapons out of the regime's hands. Gingrich advocated "taking out" Iran's scientists.

-- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Gingrich said they would take a dim view on foreign aid, promising to start the budgeting process "at zero."

-- Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann said they would return to Bush-era torture policies.

Gingrich, the newly emboldened top-tier candidate, staked out several hard-right positions and displayed a deep understanding of foreign policies. But too often he failed to pay attention to the two notes he carried out with him to the podium. One, written by his 10-year-old grandson, Robert, said, "Clearer and shorter." The other was a drawing of a smiley face by his 12-year-old granddaughter, Maggie -- a reminder to stop scowling.

Romney was solid -- again -- and probably did nothing to undermine the perception of many GOP leaders that he is on a glide path to the nomination. But it was striking to hear the once-moderate New Englander talk about the possibility of attacking Iran and defending the asassination of Americans suspected of terrorism.

Of all the candidates, Perry seemed the shakiest when the moderators pushed beyond his talking points.

Asked about Pakistan at one point, the Texas governor lurched toward a statement about foreign aid as Romney looked on quizzically. When Gingrich commended his answer, Perry could be seen on a split screen with a look of pride -- and surprise -- on his face.

Clearly, he is still smarting from a debate earlier this week in Michigan when he forgot the last of three agencies he wants to cut, the Energy Department. When CBS anchor Scott Pelley mentioned the Energy Department, Perry quipped, "Glad you heard about it."

"I've had time to think about it, sir," Pelley said.

"Me, too," Perry said. It was a quick and funny response that might have endeared voters to Perry had he not struggled with other questions. This is what he said on China:

"Listen, there are some people who made the statement that the 21st century is going to be the century of China and that, you know, we've had our time in the sunshine. I don't believe that. I don't believe that at all. As a matter of fact, you think back to the 1980s, and we faced a similar type of a situation with Russia. And Ronald Reagan said that Russia would end up on the ash heap of history, and he was right. I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues, virtues of honesty. And this whole issue of allowing cybersecurity to go on, we need to use all of our resources. The private sector working along with our government to really-- standing up to cyber-command in 2010 was a good start on that. But fighting this cyberwar I would suggest is one of the great issues that will face the next president of the united states and we must win."

A question for Republican voters: Is that clear?

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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