SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Two of the top Republican presidential candidates said Saturday they’d go to war against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, following a new report that suggests the leaders of the Middle Eastern nation continue to pursue such weapons.
During a debate at Wofford College, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich criticized President Obama’s handling of the situation, while clearly stating the use of military force is a last resort that has to be on the table.
“The president should have built a credible threat of military action and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon,” Romney said. “One thing you can know and that is if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney — if you elect me as the next president — they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
The early agreement between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich kicked off a 90-minute debate at Wofford College and gave way to the candidates spelling out sharp differences over whether waterboarding amounted to torture, drone strikes against U.S. citizens are legal and foreign assistance to Pakistan and other countries should be reconsidered.
The issue of Iran immediately took center stage, thanks to the report released last week by the International Atomic Energy Agencies report that said Iran was conducting experiments “relevant to the development of a nuclear device.”
To prevent the Middle Eastern nation from moving in that direction, several of the candidates — with the exception of Texas Rep. Ron Paul — agreed that the federal government must combine stiffer economic sanctions, support for the nation’s dissidents and covert operations aimed at eliminate scientists and systems involved.
“First of all, maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable,” Mr. Gingrich said.
But they did not all agree on whether — or when — to use military force, with Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich saying they would.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum argued that the United States and Israel should already be planning military strikes against Iran’s nuclear development sites. Herman Cain said that he would “would not use military means at this time.”
Mr. Paul pushed back, arguing that “it is not worth war to prevent the Iranian nuke” and, even if the president wanted to do it, he’d have to get authorization by Congress through a declaration of war.
The candidates — a list that also included Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — juggled questions over funding for Pakistan, the president’s plan to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the emergence of China.
“Some say the 21st century is the century of China, but I don’t believe that,” Mr. Perry said. “Reagan said that Russia will end up on the ash heap of history. I think the Communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap, too.”
Mr. Perry also was the first to suggest that the United States should start from zero every year when it considers foreign assistance. He singled out the billions sent annually to Pakistan, which he suggested is putting the lives of American soldiers in jeopardy.
“It’s time for us as a country to say ‘no’ to foreign aid to countries that don’t support the United States of America,” he said.
Asked whether Pakistan was a friend or foe, Mrs. Bachmann said “we need to understand the intricacies of the Middle East” and that Israel is under increasing threat.
“Iran is working through proxies like Syria,” she said. “The table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel.”
With less than two months to go before the Iowa caucuses kick off the nomination process and roughly a year away from the presidential election, South Carolina Republicans plan to play a major role in the process, noting that they’ve been a bellwether in GOP nomination battles, having correctly picked the eventual nominee in every race since 1980.
“We will pick the winner,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly predicted before the debate.
The CBS-National Journal-sponsored debate’s focus on national security and foreign policy proved timely, given the new report from the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog. It also followed the news that Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi stepped aside under the pressure of the nation’s financial woes, and the Arab League’s vote on Saturday to suspend Syria and push toward sanctions if the government of President Bashar al-Assad does not end its crackdown on anti-government protesters.
In the debate, Mr. Romney said that it is time “for the Assad dictatorship to end and we should use covert activity to do that.”
Mr. Paul also found himself as a dissenting voice against President Obama’s decision to authorize the drone attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, questioning the legality of targeting the American-born al Qaeda operative for assassination without a trial.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich took a harder line, with the former House speaker making the case, “if you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant.”
“You should not go to court,” he said.
Mr. Paul and Mr. Huntsman also took issue with whether the United States should use waterboarding, the controversial interrogation technique in which water is poured over the face of a captive. Mr. Obama has said it amounts to torture and banned it in 2009.
“We have a name brand in the world,” Mr. Huntsman said. “I have lived overseas four times and been an ambassador three times. We project liberty democracy and human rights. Waterboarding is torture. If we lose the ability to project values, then we lose it all.”
Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Cain and Mrs. Bachmann all said they supported the technique.
“I would return to that policy,” Mr. Cain said. “I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”The debate comes with polls showing the filed influx — once again.
Mr. Cain is still running strong, though a shadow has been cast over his campaign after news stories unearthed allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior in the 1990s while he led the National Restaurant Association. Mr. Cain has maintained the charges were unsubstantiated and his campaign has said that the news stories have created a backlash that translated into an uptick in fundraising.
Mr. Perry, meanwhile, is in the midst of damage control from an embarrassing moment in Wednesday’s debate when he couldn’t recall the third of three federal agencies he wanted to cut. Eventually, he remembered it was the Department of Energy, which is responsible for handling the nation’s nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.
On Saturday, he avoided any additional gaffes, even poking fun at his memory lapse.
The events have opened the door for Mr. Gingrich to try to present himself as the more conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, who is seen as the man to beat, thanks to name recognition and proven fundraising prowess.
A realclearpolitics.com average of polls on Saturday showed Mr. Romney with a thin lead over Mr. Cain in the polls. The latest CBS poll, though, has Mr. Gingrich tied for second with Mr. Romney.