US & Canada

PJ Crowley: 10 questions for the Republican candidates

Republican presidential candidates in Michigan on 9 November 2011
Image caption Who would you trust to answer a 3am phonecall on a foreign policy crisis?

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that the foreign policies of the eight candidates who will appear on stage in the latest Republican debate on Saturday night in South Carolina can be summarized as follows: the world is a mess, it is all Obama's fault and it will get better the moment I am elected as president.

Details to follow.

Obviously, the candidates have been pushed on the global economy, which will be the most significant national security challenge regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

Past that, as they seek to be the next Leader of the Free World, all we have to work with is some stray voltage from the campaign trail: knee-jerk reactions to unfolding events, geographically challenged answers and tried and true one-liners that have more to do with the past than present.

Libya? Since it's not a vital interest, we are not expected to know it's in Africa.

Iraq? We liberated Iraq so we could order them to continue to host US troops.

Nuclear weapons? China cannot be allowed to get a nuclear weapon. Oh, the Chinese already have them? So, Iran can't have one either.

Pakistan? I'll consult with Bush's BFF General Pervez Musharraf. Hey, at least I know his name!

Engagement? In my first 30 days in office, I will meet with the leader of Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan, wherever that is.

Through this first phase of the 2012 campaign, there has been more coverage of national security issues on late-night television than the mainstream media.

So, to learn as much as we can about what these candidates think and know about the world and national security, here are 10 suggested topic areas for the moderators of tomorrow night's debate.

Image caption Note to Herman Cain: Uzbekistan's president is Islam Karimov (pictured right)
  1. The IAEA this week says that Iran more or less knows how to build a nuclear weapon. Assuming when you become president, there is not yet evidence of an actual weapon, what will your policy be? Will you continue to contain Iran and add pressure through sanctions until it is clear Iran is constructing a bomb? Or are you prepared to act preemptively to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon?
  2. The Bush administration invaded Iraq to eliminate suspected weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration negotiated an end to the Libyan WMD programme, one of its signature achievements. You all have strongly indicated that Iran should never gain a nuclear weapon. Is the ultimate solution to declare the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone, as called for under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
  3. Most of you have said that Libya was not a vital interest to the United States and that you would not have militarily intervened. Does that mean you would have preferred leaving Gaddafi in power? If not, then why was Obama wrong?
  4. President Bush achieved regime change in Iraq, but at a cost of about $800bn (£502bn). President Obama's intervention in Libya, achieving a similar result, cost just over a billion. Keeping in mind our current financial situation, as President, what are the lessons learned from both experiences?
  5. If the deficit super-committee fails, defence will take an even bigger hit than the roughly $430bn already planned. Congress may delay sequestration until after next year's election. In 2013, are you prepared to enact deeper defence cuts to balance the budget? If not, please explain how, if Ronald Reagan could not raise defence spending, lower taxes and balance the budget, results would be different in your administration?
  6. Will any troops be in Afghanistan in 2016? If so, doing what?
  7. You have all declared you are strong supporters of Israel. Are the foreign policies of the United States and Israel identical? If not, name one area where you believe Israeli actions are contrary to US interests. What will you do to encourage a change in Israeli policy?
  8. Do you consider climate change a national security issue? If not, as president, what will you say to the president of the Maldives when he tells you that emissions of greenhouse gases by China and the United States threaten the very existence of his country because of rising sea levels?
  9. Some of you have indicated a willingness to militarily intervene in Mexico to control violence perpetrated by drug cartels. Those cartels are battling Mexican authorities using weapons purchased in the United States, including combat weapons like the AK-47. If the war in Mexico threatens the United States, should we on national security grounds first restrict the sale of combat weapons that cannot be plausibly tied to individual security before putting troops in harm's way at significant cost?
  10. Congress is considering legislation that would require all terrorism suspects to be tried in military rather than civilian courts. Do you support this legislation? If so, given the strong record of open trials and convictions in civilian courts, why do you think they are not the appropriate venue for at least certain kinds of terrorism cases?

Any candidate that credibly answers these questions will pass the proverbial 3am test.

And the American people can rest a little easier that he or she will be able to deal with the slings and arrows of national security without fear of thrown shoes.

PJ Crowley served as US Assistant Secretary of State in the administration of President Barack Obama between 2009 and 2011.

More on this story