At Debate, GOP Candidates Take Aim at Obama, But Also Hit Bush

Yochi J. Dreazen
National Journal

The eight Republican presidential candidates who took part in the first foreign policy debate lobbed rhetorical grenades at President Obama, alternately accusing him of bankrupting the U.S., putting the CIA under the control of the ACLU, threatening Israel’s security and failing to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

But Obama wasn’t the only president the GOP candidates had in their sights. To a striking degree, they also embraced a host of policies that went far beyond anything George W. Bush had been willing to accept. By the standards of Saturday night’s National Journal/CBS News debate, Bush – the most recent Republican president – would have been open to many of the same critiques that the GOP candidates had about Obama.

Take Iran, arguably the thorniest foreign policy issue. During his eight years in office, Bush routinely said Iran’s nuclear program was unacceptable and called for hard-hitting economic and diplomatic sanctions against Tehran. But he never came close to ordering an American military strike on Iran and consistently made clear that he didn’t want Israel to carry one out, either. When Israel asked Bush for dozens of advanced “bunker-buster” bombs for potential use against Iran, he pointedly declined to provide the advanced weapons. Bush was also reluctant to formally call for regime change in Iran.

The current GOP presidential candidates have none of Bush’s relative restraint when it comes to Iran. On Saturday night, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney said he supported regime change in Iran and didn’t hesitate when asked whether he’d be willing to order air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

“If all else fails, if after all of the work we’ve done there’s nothing else we can do besides take military action, then of course you take military action,” Romney said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich echoed Romney’s call for a military strike on Iran, arguing he’d be willing to use force if covert attempts to slow the program by sabotaging valuable equipment or killing key Iranian scientists didn’t stop the nuclear push. Romney said Iran would get a nuclear bomb if Obama was reelected; he and Gingrich, among others, said Obama's foreign policy was putting Israel in danger.

“If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists, you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break the capacity to have a nuclear weapon,” Gingrich said.

Those kinds of chest-pounding comments are easier to make as a candidate; presidents, once they take office, often find that the world is far more complicated than they'd expected. 

Another instance of a policy that is easier to support theoretically than in practice is water boarding, a form of simulated drowning which the Bush administration had allowed CIA interrogators to use against a host of terror suspects. Water boarding was one of the most controversial issues of the Bush years, and John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, unequivocally condemned it as torture.

On Saturday night, by contrast, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann offered surprisingly vocal endorsements of water boarding. Cain said it was an “enhanced interrogation technique,” not a form of torture, which he’d be willing to use again.

“I would return to that policy,” Cain said.  “I don’t see it as torture.”

Bachmann, who accused Obama had put the CIA under the control of the ACLU by banning harsh interrogation methods, said that if she “was president, I would be willing to use water boarding.”

Bachmann also criticized Obama for closing down many of the CIA’s secret prisons, giving the U.S., in her words, no way of interrogating terrorists. But that same criticism could be leveled against Bush, who began shutting down the CIA’s network of secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe before leaving office. 

Bush also called for closing down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; on Saturday night, most of the GOP presidential candidates said it should be kept open and used as the exclusive setting for future terror trials.

With the rise of the Tea Party, broad swaths of the Republican base have been openly contemptuous of Bush’s domestic policy, and in particular the enormous debts he rang up by launching expensive new entitlement programs and waging two costly overseas wars while simultaneously cutting taxes. If Saturday night is any indication, Bush’s foreign policy will soon face the same intra-party criticism.