Republican candidates turn their fire on Ron Paul’s foreign policy

The Republican presidential candidates turned their fire on Rep. Ron Paul at Thursday’s debate, showcasing what’s become the Texas Republican’s Achilles’ heel in the Republican primary: his foreign policy views.

Paul’s positions on national security remain his biggest obstacle to a realistic chance at the GOP nomination, even as he’s shot up in the polls in Iowa on his steadfast libertarian economic views.

Paul called the war in Iraq “useless” Thursday and said Iran shouldn’t be bombed to stop it from getting nuclear weapons — positions loathed by many Republicans.

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Pundits give Paul a legitimate shot at winning the wide-open Iowa caucuses on his economic message, but say he’s unlikely to go much further.

In Paul’s 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns, he was mostly viewed as a fringe candidate trying to publicize his views. But the libertarian’s economic message has been tailored to this year’s anti-government sentiment among GOP voters, and he’s slowly risen in the Iowa polls behind a fervent base.

The disparity between Paul and the rest of the Republican field was on full display at Thursday’s Fox News debate, where the candidates who trail Paul escalated their attacks on him.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called his positions on Iran “dangerous” as she and Paul had a terse exchange over whether the country is getting close to obtaining nuclear weapons.

Paul said there wasn’t evidence the country was producing weapons, and that “the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact, that we will soon bomb Iran.”

Bachmann responded that she’d “never heard a more dangerous answer for American security than the one that we just heard from Ron Paul.”

“The problem would be the greatest under-reaction in world history if we have an avowed madman who uses that nuclear weapon to wipe nations off the face of the Earth,” Bachmann said.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) lectured Paul for suggesting the U.S. needed to show restraint like it did in the Cold War.

“Iran is not any other country — it's a country that is ruled by the equivalent of al Qaeda,” Santorum said. “We should be planning a strike against their facilities and say if you do not open up those facilities and not close them down, we will close them down for you.”

Bachmann, who is placing all her chips on Iowa, continued her offensive against Paul when she told an Iowa radio station Friday that Paul’s national security positions were “bizarre” and “a total disqualifier.”

Paul has defended his views, saying he is not an isolationist but a “non-interventionist” when it comes to foreign policy. He argues that he’s the one who’s aligned historically with mainstream Republicans.

“As recent as George W. Bush's first run for president in 2000, he ran against nation-building, against over-extending our military, and against being policeman of the world,” Paul spokesman Gary Howard said in a statement. “What you see reflected in the other GOP candidates now is a view that has moved away from that, and what Dr. Paul wants to have is a return to a more sensible and mainstream Republican foreign policy from not that long ago.”

Still, Paul’s views are squarely at odds with the rest of the GOP candidates. He’s opposed the Iraq war at the same time that other candidates attacked President Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops at the end of this year.

Paul wants the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan and supports closing U.S. military bases worldwide. “Why are we in 900 bases in 130 countries and we're totally bankrupt?” he said. “How are you going to rebuild a military when we have no money?”

Paul draws some of his biggest criticism over his views on terrorism. He said last month that “flawed” U.S. policies toward the Middle East contributed to the Sept. 11 attacks and has said he wouldn’t have ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

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“They don't come here to kill us because we're free and prosperous,” Paul said of Muslim radicals on Thursday. “The CIA has explained it to us. It said they come here and they want to do us harm because we're bombing them.”

Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Bush adviser, said Paul’s views don’t reflect Republican policy, past or present.

“Rep. Paul’s view of the world has nothing in common with the Republican mainstream — from Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan and both Bushes,” Abrams said in an e-mail. “Watching him it seemed to me his view was reminiscent of that of the Islamic Republic of Iran or Chavez in Venezuela: The world’s real problem is that the United States goes around bombing innocent people.”

Paul’s libertarian streak also clashes with his GOP rivals on domestic issues, where he’s won some over on his campaign to audit the Federal Reserve. But nowhere is his divide with the rest of the field wider than foreign policy.

On Thursday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accused Obama of “a foreign policy based on pretty please” toward Iran because he asked them to return the downed stealth drone. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the U.S. should have either destroyed the drone or retrieved it.

Paul, meanwhile, said his fear about Iran was that it’s “another Iraq coming.”

“It is war propaganda going on,” Paul said.