By now, Republican voters are used to the clash between the hawkish approach favored by the party mainstream and the isolationist posture championed by Rep. Ron Paul–a confrontation that has been a feature of GOP presidential debates since the 2008 election.
Yet the events of the past year–especially the upheaval of the Arab Spring–have generated real debates among conservatives about how the United States should respond to a rapidly changing Middle East, an ambitious China, and a disintegrating European Union. Those new fault lines within the party will likely make their appearance on the stage tonight.
Though it is certain that each of the Republican candidates on stage tonight will criticize President Barack Obama’s record, each will find something different to criticize–not just because of their own divergent views, but also because of Obama’s incoherent policy.
Of the candidates, Mitt Romney‘s foreign policy is the closest to the post-9/11 Republican consensus, emphasizing a strong military, tough anti-terror policies, support for democracy abroad, and willingness to use pre-emptive action where necessary. In the first debate, however, Romney appeared to back away from a commitment to a strong U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and he has also been criticized for his confrontational approach towards China on economic issues. Rick Santorum has also been hawkish, criticizing Obama’s “appeasement” on Iran, and taking on the cultural battle against radical Islam. Newt Gingrich generally shares the same views, though his prevarication on Libya was once thought to have condemned his (now-resurgent) campaign to the political margins. Earlier this week, Rick Perry suggested that the U.S. should establish a no-fly zone over Syria–an idea that had even some hawkish conservatives scratching their heads.
Though admirably consistent in his opposition to American intervention abroad, Ron Paul has faced criticism recently for suggesting that he would not have ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. Libertarian Gary Johnson might no go quite so far, but shares the president’s policy of removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and as much of the rest of the world as possible. Earlier this year, Michele Bachmann strenuously opposed intervention in Libya, prompting ill-founded media speculation (celebration?) that Tea Party Republicans had rejected Bush-era foreign policy.
The two remaining candidates are noteworthy less for their ideological differences than for their contrasting experience. Herman Cain‘s foreign policy is strong on principles–“peace through strength and clarity”–but rather weak on details. In contrast, former ambassador Jon Huntsman has the most extensive foreign policy experience of any of the Republican candidates, and the most interesting things to say about China. His complex approach–favoring military action on Iran, for example, even while withdrawing from Afghanistan–fails to fit neatly within any ideological category.
Tonight’s debate will highlight these differences, but is unlikely to shift the candidates’ relative positions in the polls, especially ahead of a long Thanksgiving weekend, when fewer voters than usual will be paying attention. There will be plenty of opportunities for attacks on Obama–and gaffes that the Obama campaign will store for later use. Except for Huntsman–who could seize the moment to make the most of his foreign policy resumé–most of the Republican contenders will focus on Obama rather than themselves.