Foreign policy turned out to be a prominent part of Thursday night's GOP primary debate. The questions covered a range of countries -- and the accuracy of the candidates' responses was similarly all over the map.
Almost all the candidates committed unforced errors when talking about foreign policy and national security. Tim Pawlenty made the first mistake, when he referred to Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a "general." Mullen is an admiral in the U.S. Navy. Pawlenty also said that Gen. David Petraeus told him that it would take "two years from last summer to have an orderly and successful wind down of our mission in Afghanistan, at least in terms of our troop withdrawal, and President Obama has accelerated that."
"Two years from last summer" would mean that Petraeus was calling for significant troop withdrawals by the summer of 2012. That's exactly the timeline that Obama has set for the withdrawal of the 30,000 surge troops. Pawlenty is correct that Obama wants to withdraw U.S. forces faster than what Petraeus recommended, but his explanation of Petraeus's timeline was off.
Mitt Romney tried to clear up the confusion over his comments on Afghanistan in the last debate, when he said, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can -- as soon as our generals think it's okay.... One lesson we‘ve learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation's war of independence." Some Republicans interpreted that statement as Romney calling for a quick exit.
Last night, Romney said he always supported a slower exit than what Obama has announced, but he incorrectly stated that U.S. military leaders "recommended to President Obama that we should not start drawing our troops down until after the fighting season in 2012." But nowhere in congressional testimony have Mullen and Petraeus ever said the drawdown should begin after the 2012 summer fighting season, nor have they said that in any other public forum.
Adding to the inaccuracy, Jon Huntsman called for more engagement with the Chinese government. "We need a strategic dialogue at the highest levels between the United States and China," he said. "That's not happening."
As Obama's former ambassador to China, Huntsman surely must know that there have already been two rounds of the "U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue," which was initiated in 2009, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and included over 200 U.S. officials and a similar number of Chinese government representatives.
In fact, Huntsman even participated in the dialogue in Beijing in May 2010 and wrote a blog post about it, where he said that Clinton and Geithner "both told me they viewed the dialogue as a broad success. I couldn't agree more."
That's not to mention that Obama and President Hu Jintao have met personally 9 times, Clinton meets with her counterpart Yang Jiechi on a regular basis, and Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Beijing next week to see Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.
Newt Gingrich was called on in the debate to clear up what many saw as his changing position on Libya: he called for a no-fly zone on March 7, just before the Libya war began, and then said after the operation began, "I would not have intervened."
Gingrich accused the debate moderator, Fox News's Bret Baier, of using a "gotcha" question for asking him to clarify his position and then said that he called for the no fly-zone on March 7 because Obama "that day had announced gloriously to the world as the president of the United States that Qaddafi had to go." But, in fact, Obama first called for Qaddafi's departure on March 3, four days earlier.
Gingrich then said Obama reversed his position on Libya, claiming that the president shifted away from his call for Qaddafi to leave power in favor of a humanitarian intervention. In reality, Obama has always maintained that Qaddafi must go, although he is clear that the mandate of the military intervention in Libya does not include the mission to oust Qaddafi,
On Syria, Pawlenty mischaracterized Obama and Clinton's statements on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Until recently, [Obama] and Hillary Clinton suggested that Bashar Assad was a reformer. He's not a reformer, he's a killer." In fact, Obama has never referred to Assad as a reformer. Clinton said in March that she had heard from "lawmakers" who had visited Damascus that the Syrian president was a reformer.
A good portion of the foreign policy section of last night's debate featured a battle over Iran policy between Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and others. But that debate was riddled with factual errors and mischaracterizations.
Paul, who has taken the mantle of the Tea Party isolationist wing of the GOP, said that the CIA had confirmed they have no evidence that Iran was working on a nuclear weapon. Although a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had halted its drive to produce a nuclear weapons, in March 2010, a CIA report to Congress concluded that "Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so." In June of that year, CIA chief Leon Panetta said that the Iranians "are developing their nuclear capability and that raises concerns," and "[w]e think they have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons."
Santorum contended that Iran "has killed more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and the Afghanistanis [sic] have." Yes, Iran has supplied al Qaeda in Iraq with weapons and supported militant groups such as the Mahdi Army, resulting in the deaths of many U.S. troops, but the link to Afghanistan is extremely tenuous. Put simply, there are no statistics that support Santorum's claim.
Whether foreign policy becomes a key part of the GOP primary debate remains to be seen. But so far, the accuracy and command of details on foreign policy issues leaves a lot to be desired.