Republican presidential field shows diverse views on foreign policy

The more GOP presidential candidates spoke Tuesday evening, the more apparent it became how far the party has splintered on national security issues since 9/11.

From the Afghanistan conflict to dealing with Pakistan to combating Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the eight candidates offered a cornucopia of policy prescriptions.

That’s a big change for a party that for most of the last decade largely has been united on most national security issues. The party stood unified on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and generally was in lockstep on issues like Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons ambitions. No more.

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“There is little consensus on some of the biggest foreign policy challenges among GOP or conservatives right now,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate staffer now with the Heritage Foundation.

“None of this will be cleared up before the elections next November,” Eaglen told The Hill. “While the House has demonstrated some leadership on defense and foreign policy … conservative members will ultimately have to be led and united on this issue by their presidential candidate.”

Polls show likely voters are increasingly wary of America’s overseas wars after a decade of fighting, and that economic issues will dominate the 2012 presidential race. But where the candidates stand on several high-profile national security issues will play a role in the campaign. 

“It’s apparent that the candidates No. 1 objective is to get elected. Then on issues like national security, I’ll figure it out later,” said one Pentagon and White House adviser on security issues. “I suspect all these candidates lack the depth on national security issues at this point to make in-depth policy [pronouncements] unless they have especially strong views about an issue.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said he does not believe the U.S. should keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, arguing billions being spent there annually could be better used at home.

But Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he would take the advice of U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, suggesting he would stick closely to the Obama administration’s plan to keep most American troops there until 2014.

Many military and regional experts say centuries of evidence show Afghanistan is perhaps the most complex nation — in terms of terrain, politics and economics — to successfully fight a war. But Romney declared the mission there “is pretty straightforward,” creating a “sovereign” nation that is not ruled by the Taliban.

No other candidate described the decade-old mission in such simple terms, however.

On Iran, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the U.S. should try “every sanction that we have,” including against that nation’s central bank, before even considering a strike against its alleged nuclear weapons facilities.

That would so cripple the Iranian economy that the regime would have to get serious about negotiating about its nuclear ambitions, Perry said.

Businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said if they were president, they would support a military strike on Tehran’s nuclear sites — though Cain said Iran’s mountainous topography might pose a problem.

But Gingrich went further, advocating regime change in Tehran “before they get a nuclear weapon without a war, which beats replacing them by a war.”

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Romney said a military strike on Iran should be considered a “last resort.”

The candidates also sparred about how Washington should shape its policy toward one of its shakiest allies: Pakistan.

Huntsman said Pakistan is the nation that should "keep Americans up at night," labeling it a "nation-state that is a candidate for failure." Huntsman called for increased U.S. drone strikes on extremist group targets on Pakistani soil.

Several candidates noted Pakistan has hundreds of nuclear weapons, with one, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), coining a new phrase about the volatile nation: "Too nuclear to fail.”

Perry said Washington should pull the millions in aid it sends annually to Islamabad.

Bachmann, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, labeled that idea as "naive.” She made clear she would continue the close but tense relationship with Pakistan that has been managed by the Bush and Obama administrations.

When Perry charged officials in Washington with handing Pakistan a "blank check," Bachmann noted the U.S. and Pakistan often share intelligence for use in the war in Afghanistan and the region.

Perry said he would not, as president, send another cent to Pakistan’s leaders until they show they have America's best interests in mind. Bachmann said she would not cut off aid.

“It’s true there’s no single voice in the Republican party — either the candidates or in Congress — that has staked out clear positions on these issues,” said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). “The burden will ultimately fall on the eventual nominee.”