It sometimes seemed as if Thursday night’s Republican debate on Fox News– which included amicable debates over whether the federal Department of Education should exist and undocumented immigrants deserve any rights — was taking place in 2007. Nobody asked how Mitt Romney or Rick Perry (or Michele Bachmann) would deal with the gigantic financial crisis that is currently creeping across Europe and could destroy America’s fragile economic recovery.
One of the rare foreign policy exchanges — and the only one to get serious attention by the chattering class on Friday — featured Rick Perry rambling on in response to a question about what he would do if the Taliban obtained Pakistan’s nuclear weapons:
“Well obviously, before you ever get to that point you have to build a relationship in that region. That’s one of the things that this administration has not done,” he said, before getting the details of a weapons deal wrong. “We had the opportunity to sell India the upgraded F-16’s, we chose not to do that. We did the same with Taiwan.” (The U.S. actually aggressively tried to sell the F-16’s this past spring, but India rejected the American offer and decided to buy from France instead.)
Perry’s never got around to explaining how he’d respond to an atomic Mullah Omar, and pundits piled on to mock his weak grasp of global affairs. Even conservative Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who tends to support any and all hawkish criticisms of Obama, didn’t care for the Texas Governor’s performance, writing that “no front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry.”
However, national security experts cautioned against dismissing Perry’s answer as just gibberish from an ignorant politician, especially after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen’s recent public accusation that, Pakistani intelligence was helping the Haqqani Network, an ambitious Al-Qaeda-affiliated militia that has been implicated in a series of high-profile suicide attacks against American and Indian targets across Afghanistan.”It is not incoherent,” said Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and former CIA officer who supervised the Obama Administration’s 2009 review of its Pakistan policy. “Perry is proposing a serious policy, which is to back India as the regional power in South Asia and offer them advanced weapon systems to do so. You may not agree with his idea and you may highlight its risks but it is a serious proposal at a time when US-Pakistani relations are headed to melt down.”
The broadside against Obama’s policy has its roots in a running conservative gripe about the president: he allegedly does not support important allies like Israel or, now, India and Taiwan. There is a obviously a political aspect to these kinds of criticisms, as Republican attacks on Obama’s Israel policies have helped sow doubt among wealthy Jewish-American donors, and they could be trying for a similar dynamic among Indian-Americans. But, despite Perry’s cringe-worthy lack of familiarity with the topic, he did ultimately outline how he’d approach the region that keeps American intelligence officials up at night.
“He’s saying to contain Pakistan you need to work with your allies in the region to help you accomplish that, which isn’t totally crazy,” said Caroline Wadhams, the Director of South Asia Security Studies At Center For American Progress. “Except that he didn’t say that explicitly, he didn’t explain it, and he got things factually wrong.