Huntsman, Gingrich Debate Foreign Policy

The two Republican presidential contenders discussed the war in Afghanistan, a nuclear Iran and the Sino-American relationship.

Republican Party presidential contenders Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich debated foreign policy in New Hampshire Monday afternoon.

The candidates represent different foreign policy wings of the Republican Party. Huntsman, who was ambassador to China before he resigned this summer, is a realist who advocates withdrawal from Afghanistan and an expansion of commercial relations across East Asia to counter China’s rise.

Gingrich leans toward neoconservatism. Although he changed his mind about the merits of the NATO intervention in Libya, he supports aggressive action against Iran to prevent it from attaining a nuclear weapons capability.

20:31 By Nick Ottens

Huntsman and Gingrich, who are currently polling for fourth and second place respectively in the New Hampshire primary which is due next month, both stand to gain from a powerful debate performance.

Huntsman will have an opportunity to show off his foreign policy credentials and boost his profile. His support nationwide is in the single digits but he could pose a formidable challenge to Barack Obama’s reelection next year because of his centrist positions and moderate demeanor.

Gingrich, once speaker of the House of Representatives and the frontrunner in recent polls, enjoys his surge to his impressive participation in the televised debates so far. He is rhetorically gifted but has been criticized by conservative commentators because he’s changed positions on climate change and health care.

21:15 By Nick Ottens

Gingrich opened with praise for Huntsman and noted that it’s rare to see a debate between two people “who have a passionate commitment to America’s role in the world.”

Huntsman said he was “honored” to be with the former speaker and be part of the discussion. He argued that foreign policy has to be an “expression and extension of our values system.” To that end, Huntsman championed economic reform. “If we want an effective national-security and foreign policy, we need to fix our core,” he explained. Foreign policy, moreover, should be guided by economics again. Very Hamiltonian of him.

21:21 By Nick Ottens

First up, Afghanistan. According to Huntsman, the war’s objectives — toppling the Taliban and virtually defeating Al Qaeda — have been achieved. “We do need a counterterror effort,” he said but not counterinsurgency. With regard to building Afghan infrastructure and institutions, “I think we’ve done the best that we can do,” said Huntsman.

The former China ambassador described America’s relation with Pakistan as “transactional” and questioned financial aid that appears to do little to improve the relationship. “We do have interests in Pakistan.” That includes nuclear proliferation and “we need access” to fight terror. But in the longer term, “shoring up” the relationship with India serves America’s interest in South Asia. “It gives us a little bit of hedge in the region,” he said.

As long as America needs Pakistan’s cooperation in battling insurgents in Afghanistan though, it cannot afford to alienate Islamabad by engaging New Delhi. Huntsman can afford to make this choice because he would pull out of Afghanistan.

21:28 By Nick Ottens

Gingrich described the Afghan war and America’s entanglement in South Asia as “a much harder problem than anybody in official Washington in either party is willing to deal with.” This is usual Newtspeak. Only Newt fully recognizes the complexities of public policy.

“Across the region, we have a much deeper and much more profound problem than we think we do,” said Gingrich. He lamented that the nation hasn’t a comprehensive strategy to combat radical Islamism.

21:43 By Nick Ottens

Switching to Iran, Gingrich said that was confident the country will use nuclear weapons once it has them. He noted that there are problems to taking out their weapons program. Supposedly, they have nuclear sites “under mosques” and cities.

“Unless they agree to unilaterally disarm, we are going to change their regime,” he announced, not by direct military intervention but by undermining its ability to survive in every other possible way. “We are not going to tolerate a nuclear weapon.”

Huntsman complained that while Western powers intervened in Libya, “the centrifuges continue to spin in Iran.” He said that the Chinese have decided that they can live with a nuclear Iran (Gingrich agreed) but warned that Saudi Arabia could go nuclear as well, if not Egypt and Turkey. That would be an “unsustainable” situation, he said, so the United States should support Israel if it strikes against Iran — even without international support. “I think we work better if left to our own devices.” That’s a bit unexpected coming from someone who’s been critical of the George W. Bush freedom agenda.

Gingrich was all the more explicit in his support for Israel and feared that the Jewish state will use nuclear weapons against Iran if it doesn’t have American support for a conventional attack.

21:55 By Nick Ottens

Considering the Arab Spring, Huntsman suggested that it would be a mistake to “pick winners” while events are playing out. Although he opposed intervention in Libya, with Syria, “I see it a little differently,” he said, because it’s an Iranian ally. He wouldn’t say what he would do to challenge the Ba’athist regime in Damascus though.

Gingrich regretted the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. “Obama dumped him in an unceremonious way,” he complained. “Other allies start thinking, so, can I rely on you?” He also criticized the administration for lacking a strategy to foster civil society in the Middle East. He referenced postwar American efforts in Europe as an example to building strong and lasting relations with future allies.

22:05 By Nick Ottens

Neither candidate was particularly excited about planned cuts in the defense budget. Gingrich would rather reform military spending and make the department run more efficiently. “I’m a hawk but I’m a cheap hawk,” he said. With a new iPhone coming out every year, it cannot take ten to fifteen years anymore to complete a defense project.

Huntsman argued that defense spending should follow strategy. Terror will remain a challenge for decades, he forecast. It should guide spending, procurement and America’s alliances. Gingrich added another element — America’s heavy military presence in Europe which no longer serves its strategic interests. “The Russians aren’t coming anymore,” said Huntsman. That’s not isolationism, he added. It’s realism.

22:22 By Nick Ottens

Huntsman was glad to talk about the significance of the Sino-American relationship, opining that it would be good to “have a president who understands that part.” He predicted that the next generation of leadership in China will have a “different worldview” because it has known only growth and mounting prosperity. That’s a challenge but there will also be an opportunity once China’s next leaders have consolidated power by 2013.

A huge destabilizing dynamic will be a drop in China’s agricultural workforce from eight hundred to two hundred million in the years ahead, said Huntsman. “Capital is a coward,” he said and China is becoming a riskier place to do business. That could enable the United States to win back jobs. “We need to embark on a strategy that allows us to win back our manufacturing base.”

In terms of security, Huntsman said that China and America should “regularize the dialogue” to prevent misunderstandings from leading to conflict. Institutionalized dialogue helped stabilize the American-Soviet relationship during the Cold War. Here is an opportunity for détente.

22:28 By Nick Ottens

In his closing statement, Gingrich praised the format of their discussion and chastised the “Hollywood” style of the network debates. You can’t lay out a Libya policy in thirty seconds, he said.

“I can’t wait to compare and contrast this format with the Donald Trump debate,” said Huntsman. The real estate mogul is supposed to host a presidential debate that Huntsman won’t participate in. Gingrich, in fact, is one of the few major candidates who hasn’t canceled yet.

That was it for tonight. The candidates covered half of the topics they had agreed to at the start. They didn’t manage to discuss Europe and the debt crisis, for instance, but had ample opportunity to demonstrate their familiarity with a swath of issues. This wasn’t so much a debate, indeed, they hardly seemed to disagree, as it was a chance for them to prove that they are serious candidates who are intellectually prepared for the presidency.