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A Better Debate Than Expected, but Needed More Talk of Defense Spending



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Given the almost exclusive focus in the presidential campaign thus far on the state of the economy, tonight’s focus on national-security issues was refreshing. As moderator Scott Pelley reminded the candidates at the beginning, previous presidents have faced unexpected national-security crises early in their terms. President Obama was elected primarily because of the state of the economy, but has ended up being tested repeatedly by developments overseas. 

The basic test that any presidential candidate has to pass when it comes to national security is to have a vision for America’s role in the world, understand the key threats, and be able to make life-or-death decisions under pressure. Most of the Republican candidates in South Carolina tonight passed that test, with the possible exception of Ron Paul, whose views are so far outside the mainstream that his continued presence at these debates makes the Republican party appear less serious.

On the key challenges facing the country — Iran’s nuclear-weapons aspirations, the war in Afghanistan, how to deal with the enigma that is Pakistan, and how to manage the rise of China — most of the candidates staked out strong positions and pointed out the Obama administration’s failures. On Iran, most supported military action to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons, with Mitt Romney noting that the status quo was unacceptable: “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”

On Afghanistan, there seemed to be strong support for the notion that the president is playing politics with timelines, with Huntsman and Paul as the outliers, favoring a quicker end to the war. 

Unfortunately, given that almost everything discussed tonight related to America’s military capabilities, the candidates did not spend much time discussing perhaps the paramount threat to our national security: cuts to the defense budget. Sen. Jim DeMint used his opportunity to question the candidates to ask about deficit reduction. This focus on domestic issues at a national-security debate is emblematic of the myopic view that many in the Tea Party have shown toward the problems facing the United States.

This unhealthy focus entirely on domestic economic problems also spilled over into a discussion of foreign aid. Governor Perry said that his foreign-aid budget for each country would start at zero, a notion that may be a good talking point, but in reality makes little sense. Foreign aid accounts for less than one percent of the federal budget and is an essential part of American efforts to advance our interests in the world. 

Also not addressed sufficiently were the opportunities and pitfalls of the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Another weakness, the Obama administration’s failure to consistently place America on the side of those fighting for their freedom, was only mentioned in passing.

The Republican candidates for the most part showed themselves to be more conversant on foreign-policy issues than many likely anticipated. Just as Barack Obama entered the White House intent on being a domestic-policy president only to face foreign-policy challenges, whoever wins the Republican nomination must be prepared to spend more time on national-security issues, including many not even addressed at tonight’s debate. Hopefully, that nominee will realize that we focus solely on problems at home at our peril and the paramount concern of the next commander in chief must be the safety and security of the American people.

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.



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