The Best and the Worst of the Foreign Policy Debate

A recap of the Republican debate on national security and foreign policy, as seen through its best and worst moments.

Worst gaffe of the night: CNN, which mis-identified former Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark as a Republican in its pre-debate analysis.

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Best comeback: Newt Gingrich to Ron Paul, on the need for the Patriot Act: “Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point.”

Worst neo-colonialism: Mitt Romney, channeling his inner Kipling by suggesting that we have to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan into “modernity.”

Best follow-up answer: (Tie) Michele Bachmann on the Patriot Act, who focused on Barack Obama’s eagerness to grant rights to terrorists, rather than taking the bait to attack fellow Republicans (that time, anyway); and Ron Paul, who highlighted problems with immigration and the war on drugs in answering a question about border security.

Worst attempted dodge: Rick Santorum, allowing Wolf Blitzer to back him into saying that Muslims should be profiled at airports.

Best nickname: Herman Cain wins for calling Wolf Blitzer, “Blitz.” Somehow, I think that’s going to stick.

Worst question-begging: Jon Huntsman, who tried to turn a direct question from Fred Kagan about Pakistan into a question about dysfunction in Washington and nation-building in Afghanistan.

Best answer: (Tie) Michele Bachmann on Pakistan. Solid, nuanced, and direct–on a very difficult and complicated subject; and Rick Perry on border security, outlining the many reasons to take steps, and the precise steps to be taken.

Worst decorum: Jon Hunstman to Mitt Romney on Afghanistan: “Did you hear what I just said?” We sure did that time.

Best follow-up question: Mitt Romney to Jon Hunstman on Afghanistan, asking whether he advocates pulling all U.S. troops out “tomorrow,” which resulted in the angry response above.

Worst follow-up answer: Rick Santorum: “I agree with Ron Paul” on Pakistan and terrorism. Especially because he doesn’t.

Best gaffe of the night: Wolf Blitzer, who referred to Herman Cain as “Congressman Cain.” Was that a continuation of their “Blitz” repartee?

Worst prediction: Ron Paul, who asserted that a US/Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites is not going to happen. I’ll take the other side of that bet.

Best answer on Iran: Newt Gingrich, who noted that removing the Iranian regime without a war is better than having a war. He missed the opportunity (seized by Bachmann) to point out Obama’s failure in that regard, but later added that no attack on Iran that leaves the regime in place is going to be successful–and he’s probably right.

Worst geographic mistake: Rick Santorum, who described Africa as a “country” on the brink.

Best honest answer: Ron Paul on foreign aid, who argued–convincingly–that it is wasted on war and corruption, while hurting our own financial security.

Worst waffle: Herman Cain on foreign aid to Africa, who tried to get away with a giant “it depends” response.

Best wonkish answer: Mitt Romney, detailing the precise military cuts planned by the Obama administration–followed up by a passionate argument for a reversal of Obama administration policy toward US allies like Israel, and harsh policy steps against Iran.

Worst over-statement: Rick Perry: “If Leon Panetta is an honorable man, he should resign in protest” over defense cuts. A bit unfair, no?

Best question from the floor: Mark Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute, who asked candidates to identify the foreign policy issue they worry most about.

Worst taking the bait: Michele Bachmann, picking a fight with Newt Gingrich over amnesty and the Dream Act for illegal immigrants. She has done a better job than anyone else of tearing down GOP frontrunners.

Best departure from orthodoxy: Newt Gingrich, defending his position that some illegal immigrants should be treated differently from others, especially those who serve in the military. However, he came perilously close to recapitulating Perry’s “you don’t have a heart” attitude from an earlier debate.

Worst re-hash of past debates: Rick Perry, going after Mitt Romney with a “there you go again” line during discussion of immigration policy. What was the point of that?

Best “wonkish” question: David Addington of the Heritage Foundation, asking candidates to identify U.S. interests in Syria and how we should act to protect them.

Worst re-write: Wolf Blitzer, who re-wrote Addington’s excellent question as a question about Rick Perry’s support for a no-fly zone over Syria, then changed the subject as quickly as possible.

Best refusal to be distracted by moderator: Jon Huntsman, who used Blitzer’s attempted re-write as a way to steer back to the question of American interests in the Middle East.

Worst policy: Ron Paul, for “mind our own business.” See World War II. Does he really hope to convince Americans we are our own worst foreign threat?

Best attack on Obama: Mitt Romney, who repeatedly contrasted his foreign policy vision with Obama’s vision, more frequently and effectively than any other candidate.

Worst comment on China: Rick Perry, who called China a nation “without virtues.” Frugality and hard work, for a start…

Best answer on biggest foreign policy threat: Herman Cain, on threats to cybersecurity–a point seconded by other candidates who answered after him.

Worst answer on biggest foreign policy threat: Jon Hunstman, who cited joblessness, squandering a question–and a debate–that ought to have played to his strength on foreign policy issues.

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