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GOP contenders spar over Pakistan, foreign aid at debate

November 12, 2011|By Seema Mehta | Los Angeles Times
  • Moderator Major Garrett of the National Journal shares a moment with Republican presidential candidates.
Moderator Major Garrett of the National Journal shares a moment with Republican… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )

The Republican presidential rivals took on national security policy Saturday night in a South Carolina debate that saw the field splinter over how candidates would deal with Pakistan, foreign aid and waterboarding, but largely united in their view that President Obama has weakened the nation’s standing in the world.

The topic has received scant attention in a campaign in which the dominant focus has been on the nation’s sputtering economy, and it is an area of weakness for several on stage for the latest debate. At times some candidates--notably businessman Herman Cain--glided over specifics. Cain repeatedly told questioners that if elected president he would quiz his advisors about the best course.

The sharpest divide came over whether waterboarding equated to torture, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. arguing that it clearly is--and is beneath the United States.

“This country has values. We have a name brand in the world,” Huntsman said. “We diminish our standing in the world and the values we project, including liberty, democracy and human rights and open markets, when we torture.”

Several others, including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, disagreed, arguing that waterboarding, which both President Obama and GOP presidential nominee John McCain opposed in 2008, was an effective means of obtaining information from the nation’s enemies.

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched the most forceful defense of waterboarding, saying that all means possible should be used to extract information from those who would aim to hurt U.S. service personnel.

“For us not to have the ability to extract information to save our young people’s lives is a travesty. This is war. And I am for [using any tactics] ... and I will be for it until I die. “

Perry also suggested, in a discussion of foreign aid, that all countries should begin at zero in their requests for foreign aid, a statement that is sure to set off criticisms by those supporting strong U.S. support for Israel.

Throughout the evening, the candidates faulted Obama for planning to withdraw troops from Iraq by year’s end, argued that he had lowered America’s standing in the world, had betrayed the nation’s special relationship with Israel, and that he fundamentally does not understand or appreciate the nation's place in the world.

“We have a president right now who thinks America is just another nation,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “America is an exceptional nation.”

All eyes during the debate were on Perry, who stumbled badly during a debate earlier in the week, when he forgot one of the three federal agencies he said he would eliminate as president. Perry fought back on the debate stage Saturday, arguing that his decade-long tenure as governor of Texas, dealing with his state's border with Mexico, made him the most qualified on national security. He also repeatedly joked about his poor performance in the last debate.

When a moderator noted that he had proposed eliminating the Department of Energy, Perry said dryly, “Glad you remembered it.”

“I’ve had some time to think about it, sir,” replied CBS anchor Scott Pelley.

“Me too,” answered Perry, as the crowd roared with laughter and applause.

Cain was also heavily scrutinized because he had previously made a number of erroneous and controversial statements – suggesting he would negotiate releasing detainees at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for a hypothetical Amerrican hostage, and saying that he worried China was seeking nuclear capabilities when it has had a nuclear arsenal for nearly half a century -- that showed his lack of foreign policy experience.

The former pizza chief executive, who has been dealing with sexual harassment allegations for the last two weeks, repeatedly failed to offer specific answers, such as when he was asked whether Pakistan is a friend or foe to the United States.

“We don’t know,” he said. “There isn’t a clear answer whether Pakistan is friend or foe. That relationship must be reevaluated.”

Others bit back, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who argued that having a relationship with Pakistan was critical to insuring that that nation’s nuclear weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands. Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Pakistan is compromised and that the United States ought to reconsider its foreign aid to the country.

“They don’t deserve our foreign aid because they’re not being honest with us,” Perry said.

The meeting of the eight candidates seeking the GOP nomination at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., was the 10th debate of the year, and sponsored by CBS and National Journal. CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley and National Journal congressional correspondent Major Garrett moderated.

Gingrich, who is enjoying a surge in the polls as Perry and Cain have faltered, continued his pattern of declining to criticize his GOP rivals on the debate stage.

“We’re here tonight to talk to the American people about why every single one of us is better than Barack Obama,” he said. He added that Romney, whom he had criticized earlier in the week, would be "an enormous improvement over Barack Obama.”

Seema.mehta@latimes.com

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