Tonight, D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., will host the 303rd Republican debate (approximately), but only the second that will focus on national security/foreign policy issues. And at the first, which was not two weeks ago, several candidates’ answers ended up raising their own questions. Gov. Rick Perry and frontrunner Mitt Romney both suggested that foreign aid should “start at zero.” Perry’s people quickly cleaned up by saying Israel was not included in this, while Romney’s people said their man was really referring to Pakistan. Many of the candidates also slammed the Obama Administration’s handling of Iran; in the interim, we’ve had only more debate on this subject due to the explosive U.N. report detailing the extensive evidence of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing, covert, illicit nuclear weapons program.
Combine all this with the genuine flux in the Republican race—with Herman Cain stubbornly sticking around the top and Newtmentum capturing the country’s imagination—and we may have the first genuinely exciting GOP debate tonight. In anticipation, a few days ago I talked to Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, about Jewish Republicans’ stake in the race and what he hopes to hear tonight.
How did you feel about the “start at zero” comments?
I think there’s a big difference between the Romney comments, which if you look back were in reference to Pakistan, not in terms of what Gov. Perry was advocating. But the thing that is important to realize is that, first of all, the attacks by Congressman Wassermann Schultz are extraordinarily disingenuous: It is absolutely false for her to assert that the Republicans want to zero-out aid to Israel. If you look at Mitt Romney’s position paper, he talks about increasing aid to Israel. What Perry said, which was probably articulated in an inartful way, is that we are giving foreign aid, to his mind, to a lot of countries that don’t further the strategic values of the United States.
Secondly, I think in a broad, general view, yeah, OK—does that mean we are giving aid to countries that are not acting in our best interests? Maybe. The reality is that in the dire economic times we find ourselves in, we don’t have the luxury as a nation to do everything as business as usual all across the board. As we’re looking to make huge sacrifices domestically, it would be irresponsible not to look at other areas. Support to Israel, though, is not one of those areas that is really threatened by that discussion.
What are you hoping to hear from the candidates tonight?
We’re looking for some clarification on some of the questions of foreign aid. I’m sure it will come up, and I think it will put to bed any question about the commitment of the Republicans on critical aid to Israel. These are very dangerous times, and I think the Jewish community will be looking to see how the Arab Spring is looking to be more like an Arab Winter. We see Syria now teetering on the edge. Libya, Egypt: The rise of radical elements there pose tremendous risks to Israel. It goes without saying the issue of Iran is critical, not just for the countries in that region, but for the United States and our allies around the world. In terms of the peace process, you will start to see from the Republicans a vision that is very different from the direction of the current administration. The contrast will be very striking.
What do you see a Republican administration doing on the peace process that the Obama administration hasn’t?
You’ve got to make very clear that you need a partner for peace. One of the things that George Bush clearly understood is that trying to force a process forward when you don’t have two parties willing to make a lasting and meaningful peace isn’t good, and by action and by deed we can say the Palestinians are not ready to be true partners for peace. They snubbed this president, they snubbed the United States by moving forward on the unilateral declaration at the U.N. The notion that we’re going to force a process forward in this climate is naive and reckless.
What do you expect these candidates to do, if president, that Obama doesn’t on Iran?
The president keeps talking about these crippling sanctions and how all the pressure of the international community is one of the achievements of his administration so far. But every day we get closer to Iran having a nuclear weapon. This administration has sent mixed messages regarding the military option, whether it’s on or off the table. I think right now because America is seen as a much weaker player globally, our ability to really impact Iran through sanctions is hindered. Clearly our ability to get folks like the Russians and the Chinese onboard is creating a safety valve for the Iranians. We can’t seem to build a unified international coalition. I think you’ll see the Republicans onstage talk about that and show a very clear and distinct difference.
What did you make of the Obama-Sarkozy hot-mic gaffe? The defense an Obama supporter would make is that Obama was having the conversation in the first place because he was persuading President Sarkozy to back him and Israel at the U.N.
I mean regardless of the context, I don’t know if that’s a defense of the comments and the feelings. What everybody got to see was really an uncensored, raw look into how the president of the United States and how the president of France truly feel about Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think the president showed his true colors. I think anybody, Republican or Democrat, would be hard-pressed to think that had that happened with George Bush or President Clinton, they wouldn’t have pushed back and responded to Sarkozy—to come to Netanyahu’s defense or at least take issue, not agree with the president calling him a liar. I could very easily see Bill Clinton coming to his defense, as many in the Jewish community could see him doing.
The RJC doesn’t endorse primary candidates, correct? But it does in the general?
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.