By CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford
With a sluggish economy and high unemployment showing little sign of relenting anytime soon, foreign policy has understandably maintained a lower profile than its domestic counterpart as the GOP candidates for president barnstorm and debate.
So, we wondered, where exactly do the candidates stand on issues that lie beyond the water's edge? The answer is not so clear at this point.
"Trying to draw definitive conclusions on the basis of what relatively little commentary by the candidates leads you to some perilous waters," said James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While it may be too early to discern each candidate's vision for America's role in the world, two distinct camps are emerging among the candidates on the most pressing foreign policy issue: the war in Afghanistan.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum embrace what many refer to as the traditional "Republican hawkish internationalism" view that the United States should maintain robust foreign and defense policies, and feel President Obama did not follow the advice of the generals when he announced a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting this year.
Perry entered the race only last weekend and was not a part of last week's debate in Iowa, where perennial front-runner Romney took a swipe at the current commander in chief.
"And those generals recommended to President Obama that we should not start drawing our troops down until after the fighting season in 2012," Romney said. "He took a political decision to draw them down faster than that. That is wrong. We should follow the recommendation of the generals, and we should now look for the people of Afghanistan to pick up their fight and preserve that liberty that has been so dearly won."
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is part of this camp as well, but he dropped out of the race earlier this month after finishing a distant third in the Ames Iowa straw poll.
It will be interesting to watch how this group of candidates reconciles their view of America's role abroad with their insistence on balancing the federal budget, which would require deep cuts in spending.
Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman are more skeptical of the American involvement in Afghanistan and believe that continued investment there is not worth the cost. In the debate last week, Paul, who supports a more libertarian view toward foreign policy than most of the other candidates, said it was time to switch the security focus to areas closer to home.
"I would suggest that we could do it is pay less attention to the borders between Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and bring our troops home and deal with the border," he said. "But why do we pay more attention to the borders overseas and less attention to the borders here at home?"
While differences exist on the right approach toward Afghanistan, there appears to be little daylight between the candidates on Rep. Michele Bachmann's call to "stand strong behind our most valuable ally, Israel." Lindsay says circumstances could arise to expose differences on the U.S. relationship with Israel, "but clearly, all the candidates want voters to know they intend to be a steadfast friend of Israel."
And what about U.S. support of the NATO-led operation under way in Libya? Many of the GOP candidates find fault with the U.S. approach. At a debate moderated by CNN's John King in June, Bachmann disagreed with the president's approach of "leading from behind" and lending support to a military operation headed by European forces.
"We are the head. We are not the tail. The president was wrong. All we have to know is, the president deferred leadership in Libya to France. That's all we need to know. The president was not leading when it came to Libya," Bachmann said.
In the same debate, Bachmann further criticized U.S. involvement in Libya because of reports that the Libyan opposition could comprise al Qaeda elements.
Former Rep. Newt Gingrich was even more critical. "Ten years after 9/11, our intelligence is so inadequate that we have no idea what percent of the Libyan rebels are, in fact, al Qaeda. Libya was the second-largest producer of people who wanted to kill Americans in Iraq," Gingrich said. "I think that we need to think fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region."
Huge questions remain on where the candidates stand on a variety of issues like relations with Russia, Iran, North Korea and the Arab Spring countries. Many of the candidates have little or no experience on current foreign policy issues. But Huntsman brings unique perspective to perhaps the most challenging foreign policy issue currently facing the United States: the rise of China. And Bachmann, through her position on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has exposure to classified information that most of her competitors do not.
Though it's still relatively early in the process, some of the campaigns have begun meeting with advisers to bone up on foreign policy issues. Perry met with several Pentagon officials from Donald Rumsfeld's tenure before jumping into the race. There have also been reports that Romney is being advised by members of the George W. Bush administration and that Huntsman was speaking with Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George H.W. Bush.
With the start of the nominating contests still five months away, Lindsey says foreign policy experts who advise or lean Republican are willing to speak with any campaign that calls, but "they haven't begun an exclusive relationship" with any one candidate yet.