Defense and foreign-policy issues, which have taken a back seat to economic issues so far in the Republican presidential race, are re-emerging - at least for now - as candidates have begun laying out their visions for the Pentagon budget, the war in Afghanistan and America’s role in the world.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. became the latest on Monday, arguing for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan and a smarter Pentagon budget.
“Simply advocating more ships, more troops and more weapons is not a viable path forward,” Mr. Huntsman said during a speech in New Hampshire, site of the contest’s first primary. “We need more agility, more intelligence and more economic engagement with the world.”
The reference to ships and troops was a barely veiled swipe at front-runner Mitt Romney, who last week vowed to add 100,000 troops to the active-duty military and increase the Navy’s annual shipbuilding rate from nine vessels to 15.
“Time and again, we have seen that attempts to balance the budget by weakening our military only lead to a far higher price in the future not only in treasure, but also in blood,” Mr. Romney said in a speech in South Carolina on Friday, a day after he unveiled a lengthy list of foreign-policy advisers.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has sketched out only the bare outlines of a Perry administration foreign policy, calling Mr. Obama’s approach “muddled and ineffective” and emphasizing such conservative themes as a strong defense and unstinting support for Israel. But he also raised some eyebrows when he warned in one debate against foreign-policy “adventurism.”
“Governor Perry’s foreign policy will be driven by America’s vital interests,” his campaign said in a statement to The Washington Times. “Governor Perry will use every tool available to support our allies and engage our adversaries and engage our military only as a last resort, but when necessary, forcefully, with clear objectives and a path to achieve those objectives. Our nation is most secure when we have the strongest economy in the world, so it is imperative that wework to reinvigorate our economy to remain militarily strong and uphold effective foreign policy.”
The debate over defense spending is unlikely to disappear immediately, with a November deadline looming for the bipartisan supercommittee created during the debt-ceiling crisis to outline at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. Failure to reach an agreement would trigger an automatic cut to the defense budget of roughly $600 billion over 10 years.
But unlike the Republican nomination fight in 2008, when leading candidates John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani ran national-security-centered campaigns, the 2012 race seems destined to remain a largely economic affair.
Mr. Huntsman, who served as President Obama’s ambassador to China until earlier this year, is the only candidate in the race with formal foreign-policy experience, and even he - like his rivals - has focused his campaign message on jobs, taxes, spending, debt and other economic issues.
Polls show that the candidates’ focus on the economy, which also has come at the expense of social issues, reflects the priorities of Republican voters.
A Washington Post/ABC News survey released earlier this month found that 51 percent of Republicans said the “economy and jobs” would be their No. 1 issue in choosing a nominee. Deficit, debt and spending came in second with 13 percent while another 4 percent said taxes. Foreign-policy and military issues were tied for last at 1 percent.
Recent polls also show that Mr. Obama continues to get some credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and other recent successes in the war on terror. While his approval rating has been hovering around 40 percent, with even lower marks on the economy, roughly 6 of every 10 Americans approve of his handling of terrorism.
But that has not stopped the Republican candidates from seeking to paint him as a weak commander in chief. “If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I’m not your president,” Mr. Romney said Friday. “You have that president today.”
On Monday, Mr. Huntsman became the latest Republican hopeful to openly contemplate an attack on Iran. In a July interview with The Times, businessman Herman Cain - now challenging Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry for the lead in most national polls - said he would attack Iran if it “messes with Israel.”
Mr. Cain has emphasized his “peace through strength with clarity” principle on the campaign trail, even as he confesses an overall ignorance of foreign policy. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday, Mr. Cain said he would be unfazed by “gotcha” questions on such topics.
“When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know,’ ” Mr. Cain said, turning toward CBN’s David Brody and asking: “Do you know?”