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GOP candidates talk tough on Iran, split over Pakistan at debate

November 12, 2011|By James Oliphant
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens as Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Republican presidential debate in Spartanburg, S.C.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens as Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks… (Chris Keane / Reuters )

As a foreign policy-themed debate got underway in Spartanburg, S.C., on Saturday, it quickly became clear that the eight Republican presidential candidates on the stage were more like-minded on how to handle the threat posed by a nuclear Iran than what do with Pakistan.

Almost to a candidate, they charged that President Obama wasn’t doing enough to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went the furthest, refusing to rule out a war with the Middle East nation if economic sanctions failed to work. “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will get a nuclear weapon. If we elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not," Romney said. “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

The major exception on Iran was Rep. Ron Paul, who compared the aggressive talk on Iran to the run-up to the Iraq war. He explicitly disagreed with Romney on the prospect of a war. “It isn’t worth that,” Paul said.

Pakistan presented more of a quandary for the candidates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, showing some aggressiveness on the issue, declared that he would eliminate the billions in U.S. foreign aid to the country, which has served as a key ally to the United States during the war in Afghanistan. “I don’t trust them,” Perry said.

Perry was backed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who noted that Osama bin Laden had been sheltered in the nation for years before his death at the hands of U.S. forces. “I think it’s a good idea to start at zero and sometimes stay there,” he said.

But Rep. Michele Bachmann, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, disagreed, suggesting that such a policy was reckless.

“Pakistan is a very difficult area because they have been housing terrorists, and terrorists have been training there...but I would not agree with that assessment, to pull all foreign aid from Pakistan,” Bachmann said. “I would reduce foreign aid to many, many countries. But there's a problem, because Pakistan has a nuclear weapon. We have more people affiliated with Al Qaeda closer to that nuclear bomb than in any other nation.”

Santorum concurred. “We can’t be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend,” he said.

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