By Jamie Crawford
Foreign policy still lags far behind the discussion of domestic issues as the Republican candidates continue debating each other. But when it does arise, the final four candidates in the race seem to divide into two camps - intervene big time on one side, stay out of it on the other side.
"We have one candidate, Ron Paul, whose a principled noninterventionist, and then we have three candidates - Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum - that are all activist internationalists who want to use American power aggressively overseas to contest the perils they see," James Lindsay with the Council on Foreign Relations told CNN.
The race to the nomination for Romney, Gingrich and Santorum is not likely to turn on foreign policy Lindsay told CNN. "They may not be in the same ZIP Code on all issues, but they are in the same city," he said.
But despite the broad similarities, some more subtle differences over policy and criticism of the Obama administration's handling of foreign policy still play out. Here is a look at how the remaining White House hopefuls view some of the toughest international issues likely to take a prominent role over the next year.
Perhaps no issue is as geopolitically challenging in the near term than the international standoff with Iran over the country's nuclear program. Likewise, no other foreign policy topic has generated as much heated rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Santorum, who has labeled President Barack Obama's handling of the situation a "colossal failure," does not mince words over the possible use of U.S. military power to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. "I will make a clear declaration to the Iranian government," he said at a rally in Coral Springs, Florida, this week, "that you either open your facilities, you begin to dismantle this nuclear program, or we will dismantle it for you."
For the former Pennsylvania senator, the Islamic Republic is a regime "just as radical as the people who run al Qaeda." Allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon would enable it to "spread a reign of terror around not just the Middle East, but here in America, here in Florida, here across Western civilization," he said at the same rally.
When asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer last month how a President Gingrich would respond to a call from the Israeli government advising on an imminent strike on Iran's nuclear complex, the former speaker of the House said his reply would be "How can we help you?" Gingrich went on to say, "All the world can decide is whether they help us peacefully stop it or they force us to use violence, but Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon."
At Monday's debate in Tampa, Gingrich said the recent decision to postpone large-scale joint military exercises with Israel showed great "weakness" on the part of the Obama administration.
The exercises were to come at a time when Iran threatens to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which one fifth of the global oil trade passes through.
"I think there's a very grave danger that the Iranians think that in fact this president is so weak," they could close the Strait if Hormuz without consequence after cancellation of the military exercises, Gingrich said.
Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, said the decision to postpone the exercises was made jointly with the United States and "stemmed solely from technical issues." He went on to call the announcement "routine."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is also on the record as saying it is unacceptable for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and would pursue a policy to stop its advancement.
Recent Iranian provocations over the Strait of Hormuz have also laid bear weaknesses in the U.S. Navy that must be addressed Romney says. "It is appropriate and essential for our military, for our Navy to maintain open seas," he said. "We want [Iran] to see that we're so strong," the regime would not contemplate closing the Strait he said.
Paul has taken a sharply different tack and distanced himself from his competitors when it comes to handling Iraq's nuclear program. "You know what I really fear?" the U.S. representative from Texas asked at a debate last month. "It's another Iraq coming. It's war propaganda going on," he said.
For Paul, the current atmosphere is somewhat analogous to the 2003 lead up to the Iraq war that eventually revealed Iraq was not pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program. "To me, the greatest danger is that we will have a president that will overreact," he said.
He has also referred to the tightening of sanctions against Iran an "act of war" that could damage the global economy by diminishing the flow of oil.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
With the war in Iraq over, and the military component of the war in Afghanistan on track to finish in 2014, the gloves have come off when the GOP candidates discuss Obama's handling of Afghanistan.
Part of the administration's strategy has been to pursue a dialog with certain members of the Taliban, maintaining military force alone cannot end the war. In Monday's debate, Romney disagreed and said the war can be won without talking to the Taliban by "beating them" instead. Making certain the Afghan Army is trained to hold off the Taliban is the answer he said.
Romney says the administration has made victory in Afghanistan difficult by announcing a withdraw date for troops, drawing down surge troops this past year and not having greater oversight over presidential elections in Afghanistan that many saw as somewhat fraudulent.
Obama has "failed in executing a policy in Afghanistan that would optimize our prospects of success," he said.
While supporting also supporting a robust U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Gingrich says a more muscular approach toward Pakistan is necessary. With Osama bin Laden having lived in Pakistan for years, along with the presence of Islamic militants in the border regions near Afghanistan, Pakistan must come to grips with the reality, Gingrich said.
During CNN's national security debate in November, Gingrich said the rules of engagement should change, with U.S. troops in Afghanistan granted permission to conduct hot pursuit of militants running into Pakistan.
"You tell the Pakistanis," he said, "help us or get out of the way, but don't complain if we kill people you're not willing to go after on your territory where you have been protecting them."
Santorum, also a critic of the decision to draw down troops in Afghanistan, has said the policy is costing American lives.
"I think this is part of the consequences," Santorum said last fall of a suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed 12 Americans. "This is a dangerous enemy that has something no enemy of the United States should have," he said at a fundraising dinner for Rep. Steve King of Iowa. "And it was given to them be President Obama. And that is hope," to simply survive and maintain some activity until U.S. forces eventually pull out.
If elected, Santorum has said he would reverse the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a far too costly proposition in Paul's mind, with U.S. investment there in need of a different direction.
In CNN's debate in November, Paul said he was tired of "all the money spent and lives lost worrying about the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan and forgetting about our borders between the United States and Mexico."
"We should think more about, you know, what we do at home," he said.
While Paul champions a reduction on military spending in the current fiscal environment, he does not seem to have much company with his fellow competitors.
"I really stand apart from some of our candidates in believing that we need a strong defense," Gingrich said in a likely attack on Paul in Iowa last month. Gingrich also called for a "thoroughly modernized intelligence community," in the same set of remarks.
Santorum told an audience in Iowa last month that even in leaner times, defense spending would not be cut in his administration. Although adjustments would be made with certain programs becoming obsolete, the overall defense budget would be spared, Santorum told the crowd. "The number one responsibility of the federal government is national security," he said.
For his part, Romney also calls for an increase in military spending, particularly through a robust naval presence in East Asia.
"Under this president, under prior presidents, we keep shrinking our Navy," Romney said Monday evening in the Tampa debate. In his first 100 days in office, Romney said he would put the Navy on a path to increase its shipbuilding rate per year.
Romney has also said it would also be a priority to modernize and replace aging inventories of the Army, Air Force and Marines.
The rise of China, and its relationship with the United States and the world, has emerged as another centerpiece of Romney's foreign policy.
"China is almost on every dimension cheating. And we have got to recognize that," Romney said in November. "They're manipulating their currency and, by doing so, holding down the price of Chinese goods and making sure their products are artificially low-priced. It's predatory pricing. It's killing jobs in America."
If elected, Romney said he would direct the Treasury Department to label China a "currency manipulator," which could trigger possible sanctions under U.S. law. The Obama administration has been reluctant to support legislation in the Senate for fear of provoking a trade war with China.
"If they cheat, there is a price to pay," Romney has said. "I don't want a trade war, but I don't want a trade surrender either."
Romney says China, as the world's No. 2 economy, needs to pull more of its weight and should not expect as much foreign assistance from the United States.
"This galls me, we give 10 million dollars in foreign aid a year to China," he said in October in Exeter, New Hampshire. "Its not that they're bad people, but the idea that a nation that is as large and robust and economically viable as theirs is getting money from us just makes no sense at all."
Gingrich sees China through the prism of an economic challenge as well. The United States will need to find ways "to dramatically raise the pain level for Chinese cheating both on the hacking side, but also on the stealing and intellectual property side," he said at a debate in November, adding that he had not seen any country come forward with a strategy to do so yet.
But he has also been critical of China's human rights record through its suppression of dissidents. The United States should engage more fully with the people of China, rather than the government, Gingrich says, through student exchanges and tourism.
Gingrich has said increased contacts with the Chinese people is an effective way to expose them to Western freedoms and eventually bring change to the Chinese system.