Republican contenders target Pakistan and Iran


WASHINGTON – The Republican presidential hopefuls have criticised US policy toward Pakistan and have called for placing sanctions on Iran’s central bank.

In a lively and substantive foreign policy debate on Tuesday, Newt Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, gave a composed performance in the first debate since he surged to the top of polls.

He backed an overhaul in immigration policy that would include a guest-worker programme similar to plans condemned by conservatives in the past.

Earlier in the week, Mr Gingrich roared into the lead of the Republican nominating race, brushing off concerns about his work for a troubled housing company, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Twenty-four per cent of registered Republican voters would support the former speaker of the US House of Representatives if the contest were held now, an increase of eight percentage points from roughly a week ago, according to the poll, which was conducted on November 18th-19th.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has stayed near the top of most polls, garnered support from 22 per cent of Republicans, slumping six percentage points from the last survey conducted on November 10th- 11th and ending up essentially tied with Mr Gingrich.

The latest in the Republican debates, the second on foreign policy in the last 10 days, featured sharp exchanges on a broad range of issues, including anti-terrorism laws, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Republicans ganged up on Pakistan and questioned whether the United States could trust it.

Texas governor Rick Perry called Pakistan unworthy of US aid because it had not done enough to help fight al-Qaeda.

“To write a cheque to countries that are clearly not representing American interests is nonsensical,” said Mr Perry, who has faded in polls after recent debate stumbles but had a stronger performance on Tuesday.

Representative Michele Bachmann, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called Mr Perry “highly naive” and said the United States should demand more from a “violent and unstable” Pakistan with nuclear weapons.

She called it “a nation that lies, that does everything possible that you could imagine wrong. At the same time they do share intelligence data with us regarding al-Qaeda.”

Mr Romney said US aid to Islamabad could help “bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th century for that matter”.

The extensive criticism of Pakistan featured “nasty and provocative language”, said Teresita Schaffer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, but she said a Republican president probably would not change Pakistan policy much.

“I suspect that any plausible Republican would have to deal with the complicated reality in about the way the current administration is doing,” Ms Schaffer said.

Democrats have criticised the Republican field for a lack of foreign policy knowledge, but the wide-ranging debate was substantive and devoid of major missteps.

Jon Huntsman, a former US ambassador to China, is the only candidate with deep foreign policy experience.

In a discussion of ways to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, Mr Perry and Mr Gingrich backed sanctions on the Iranian central bank. Mr Gingrich called it “a good idea”.

“I think replacing the regime before they get a nuclear weapon without a war beats replacing the regime with war, which beats allowing them to have a nuclear weapon,” he said of Iran.

Eight Republicans participated in the debate at Washingtons DAR Constitution Hall, which aired live on CNN. It was the 11th for Republicans seeking the right to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.

Mr Gingrich, as the latest in a series of conservatives to challenge the more moderate Mr Romney for the top spot in the Republican race, had the most to lose in the showdown.

A series of recent polls gave Mr Gingrich an edge over Mr Romney, who has hovered near the top of polls all year but has failed to win over many conservatives. Mr Gingrich’s campaign has soared as rivals like businessman Herman Cain and Mr Perry faltered in the spotlight.

However Mr Gingrich could draw new criticism from conservatives with his support for an immigration overhaul with a guest worker programme.

“If you are an immigrant with children who works, pays taxes and attends church,” he said, “I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

The candidates largely agreed on the need to strengthen domestic surveillance and anti-terrorism laws but several warned of the potential threat to civil liberties.

Mr Gingrich said authorities should use “every tool that you can possibly use” to fight terrorism. He endorsed strengthening the Patriot Act, the law passed after the September 11th, 2001, attacks to expand police powers to battle terrorism.

However libertarian Representative Ron Paul said the law undermined personal liberties. “I would be very careful protecting the rule of law,” he said.

Former senator Rick Santorum said he would back the use of profiling to give heavier airport screenings to Muslims, because they were “the folks who are most likely to commit these crimes”.

Mr Cain refused to go that far, but called for “targeted identification” of passengers. He said profiling was “oversimplifying” the issue. – (Reuters)