What We Learned at the Foreign Policy Debate

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Perry wants to zero out all foreign aid, Cain doesn't know if Pakistan is friend or foe, Romney supports enhanced interrogation -- and more

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Saturday night's foreign policy debate, the first of the campaign to focus on international issues, exposed substantial fissures between the candidates on topics that ranged from Iran to foreign aid to waterboarding to China. Yet the tone was, shall we say, diplomatic, as Mitt Romney continued to play the confident front-runner and the other candidates declined even to try to trip him up. Here's what you missed if you had something better to do with your Saturday night:

1. Rick Perry can memorize a three-item list...but now he's got some explaining to do about Israel. Coming off his notorious brain freeze just a few days before, the Texas governor turned in his strongest debate performance to date. He joked about his flub -- when moderator Scott Pelley brought up the Department of Energy, Perry zinged, "I'm glad you remembered it." "I've had some time to think about it, sir," Pelley responded, to which Perry shot back, "Me too." He delivered rehearsed-seeming but forceful answers on his experience as commander-in-chief of a state with an international border and his zeal for enhanced interrogation techniques, and struck a tea party-friendly note with the notion that all foreign-aid budgets should be zeroed out and reallocated from scratch. But he may have "stepped in it" again with his answer to a follow-up on whether that would include Israel: "Obviously, Israel is a special ally, and my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level," Perry said. "But it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make their case." The idea that Israel will be put on a par with the rest of the international community and be forced to beg for annual aid won't sit well with the GOP's pro-Israel base. Perry also memorably uttered a word not previously known to the English language: "forwithal," as in, "The French and Germans have the economic forwithal to deal with this." Like "refudiate," it appeared to be a portmanteau, perhaps of "foresight" and "wherewithal."

2. Foreign policy makes strange bedfellows (and Ron Paul is a convenient foil). The candidates diverged broadly on many issues, starting with Pakistan, which Perry accused of being a faithless ally undeserving of U.S. aid. Michele Bachmann argued for the importance of preventing Pakistani nukes from getting into the wrong hands, and Santorum even went so far as to forcefully defend the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Ron Paul, whose isolationist philosophy distinguishes him from the GOP mainstream, proved a useful counterpoint to the others with his calls to withdraw troops from abroad, his opposition to targeted killings of U.S. citizens and his stance against waterboarding; Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry all defended the controversial practice. Jon Huntsman sided with Paul on waterboarding and argued for a quicker draw-down from Afghanistan than the others. It was interesting to see the candidates sometimes end up on the side of the hawkish Obama administration on matters like the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, even as they insisted Obama's foreign policy has been a dismal failure.

3. It is, indeed, time for Newt. A debate on a complex, historically grounded set of issues was the perfect venue for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose upsurge in the esteem of primary voters has been confirmed by numerous recent polls. Many GOPers particularly applauded his answer on whether assassinating U.S. citizens violates the rule of law: "Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law. It is an act of war, and the correct thing in an act of war is to kill people who are trying to kill you." Refreshingly, Gingrich mostly laid off the moderators for once, though he did continue his role as self-appointed unifier, contending that all of the GOP candidates' answers were "superior to the current administration" and striking a kumbayah note as if the event were not a debate but an eight-way joint infomercial.

4. Michele Bachmann has nothing to complain about. After the debate, Bachmann's campaign circulated an email a staffer was mistakenly cc'd on in which CBS's John Dickerson said the Minnesota congresswoman was "not going to get many questions." They claimed this proved a liberal media conspiracy to keep her from getting her share of debate airtime. But Bachmann actually turned in quite a strong debate, proving her fluency on the issues at hand and sounding presidential to many GOP ears. She struck pragmatic notes on foreign aid and military spending and displayed a granular knowledge of ground conditions in Afghanistan, something Perry notably couldn't manage. She also had a couple of odd moments, though, such as when she extolled China as an example of the economic growth that can result from the lack of a social safety net. And her assertion that "It seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel" was jarring.

5. A surprisingly weak night for Huntsman. The former ambassador was supposed to be in his element, but he failed to distinguish himself. Though he had some nice moments, particularly his eloquent case for how torture undermines American values, he seemed sedate. And when he got a question on China, rather than owning the subject he whiffed. "The reality is a little different, as it usually is when you're on the ground," he said smirkingly. Then he said it wouldn't be possible to get a WTO ruling against China -- without bothering to explain why -- and began to babble about Chinese bloggers, who he seemed to be saying were both a wonderful democratizing force and the source of China's inevitable decline.

6. Herman Cain is really terrible at this stuff. Cain didn't outright bobble anything, but on question after question, he took refuge in the tired defense that he would consult with smart advisers. The moderators pointed out that his oft-stated foreign policy slogan involves "clarity" on who America's friends and foes are; when asked where Pakistan falls, he said, "There isn't a clear answer." He kept saying he would have to get into office and gather information on topics like Afghan troop levels that plenty of civilians have managed to study and formulate positions on.

7. Is Romney untouchable? Another debate, another good night for the coasting front-runner, who now appears to feel so secure that he can even be generous to the man he once saw as his biggest threat, Rick Perry. Romney said he agreed with Perry's zero-based foreign-aid budgeting idea, though his aides hastened to clarify that he meant that only on Pakistan, not Israel. Not only did none of the other candidates land a blow against Romney, they didn't even try. In the debate's most telling moment from a political standpoint, Gingrich was asked about a criticism he'd recently leveled at Romney during a radio interview -- that the former Massachusetts governor was more manager than visionary. But Gingrich refused to repeat the charge to Romney's face. "I brought it up yesterday because I was on a national radio show," he said.

Image credit: Reuters/Chris Keane
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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