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Wed., Jan. 25, 2012

GOP must elevate debate

When it comes to foreign policy, the current Republican candidates are so incoherent they make George W. Bush look like a savant.

I know that what candidates say on foreign affairs on the stump is often abandoned once in office. Yet it certainly looks as if the old guard of Republican foreign-policy experts is obsolete in the age of angry tea party populism. At a time when diplomatic savvy is desperately needed, outrageous remarks get the most cheers from the base.

The comments on international affairs at Republican debates are often so clueless they’ve become grist for satire in foreign capitals. Believe me, they aren’t helping efforts to assert U.S. leadership abroad.

Take last Monday’s debate in South Carolina. One might have hoped the absence of Herman “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan” Cain and Michele Bachmann would have elevated the discussion.

But along came Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who has confused India and Pakistan in the past) with his claim that NATO ally Turkey is run by “Islamic terrorists.” Perry went on to lump Turkey with Syria and Iran.

“Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO,” Perry stated, “but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go zero with it.”

Perry has it exactly backward. Turkey’s elected leaders, who come from a party with Islamic roots, are prickly and some of their policies are questionable, including a crackdown on domestic critics. But this Turkish government is the key offset to Iranian influence in the region.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a strong stand against the Assad regime’s slaughter in Syria, and helped stabilize Iraq; he has permitted NATO early-warning radars to be based on Turkish soil. Erdogan even lectured Egypt’s victorious Islamist parties on the virtues of a secular state.

As for U.S. “foreign aid” to prospering Turkey, that amounted to only $5.4 million in 2011, most of it for security programs in which the United States has a shared interest. Perhaps Perry confused Turkey with Pakistan (which does get substantial U.S. aid).

His remarks got huge play inside Turkey and prompted a strong Turkish government rebuttal.

Then we come to Newt Gingrich, whose campaign is running an anti-Romney ad that charges: “Just like (Massachusetts Democratic Sen.) John Kerry, he speaks French.” Quelle horreur! That “crime” may resonate with Republican primary voters who think speaking a foreign tongue is elitist (maybe that’s why the Mandarin-speaking Jon Huntsman had to quit the Republican race).

But the ad also provides rich fodder for bloggers and comics, many of whom point out that Gingrich lived in France from age 14 to 16 and lists Charles de Gaulle among his heroes. Wags have noted that if Gingrich doesn’t know French, he couldn’t have read many of the books in the bibliography of his Ph.D. thesis about Belgian colonialism.

Gingrich’s most notable foreign-policy line in this week’s debate, which drew huge cheers, was: “Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America’s enemies: Kill them.” He was referring to Osama bin Laden – which is fine with me – but that tone infuses his broad approach to international relations. Bang, bang.

Example: In a November debate, he claimed the administration could get rid of the Syrian regime “very rapidly” with “much more aggressive policies.” Clearly, Gingrich has minimal understanding of the Middle East.

I don’t have space to list Rick Santorum’s foreign-policy gaffes, but I will if his candidacy lasts. As for Ron Paul, despite my disagreement with his isolationism, he at least makes a coherent argument for his ideas.

Which brings me to the front-runner, Mitt Romney. I’d thought by now that Romney would have upgraded his foreign-policy presentation. No such luck.

Never mind that he, like Gingrich, insists on running against those effete Europeans, accusing President Obama of seeking to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society.” You would think that Romney – who has lived in Europe – would know that Germany, unlike the United States, has managed to maintain its manufacturing jobs and an excellent health-care system, while keeping its economy strong.

More disturbing is Romney’s posturing about defense spending and our military operations overseas. In these austere times, Romney calls for adding 100,000 U.S. troops and vastly expanding defense outlays, while further cutting taxes. Excuse me?

In this week’s debate, when asked whether the United States should talk to the Taliban, he responded: “Of course not. Speaker Gingrich is right. They’ve killed Americans. We go anywhere they are, and we kill them.”

I’ve expressed my doubts about whether talks with the Taliban will work, but there’s no question we have to try them. As our generals have repeatedly stated, no military victory can be achieved in Afghanistan. Some kind of political solution is needed.

When the Fox News questioner pointed out that Romney adviser Mitchell Reiss had proposed talks with the Taliban, the candidate ignored the question and insisted, “We should defeat the Taliban.” Perhaps Romney needs to spend more time with his advisers. Judging from his performance so far, he’s not ready for foreign-policy prime time.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her email address is

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