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NICHOLAS BURNS

The best GOP candidates on foreign policy

WHILE THE economy will be the central issue of the presidential campaign, foreign policy and national security should be a close second. 2012 is shaping up to be a dangerous year for America’s international interests — with Iranian saber-rattling, North Korean threats, and concerns over stability in Iraq emerging since New Year’s Day alone. If Republicans hope to unseat Barack Obama, they will need to nominate a candidate who can match the president’s impressive international record and hold his own in the general election debates on America’s daunting global agenda.

The perfect Republican candidate would combine the strategic sophistication and guile of Richard Nixon with Ronald Reagan’s clear moral leadership and George H.W. Bush’s unmatched international experience. Who among the surviving candidates is best prepared to continue the rich Republican foreign policy strength in knowledge, judgment, and experience dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower at the height of the Cold War?

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In testing candidates for global knowledge - a keen grasp of history and international politics and economics — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich have all excelled in the primary debates. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are much more ideologically driven on foreign policy and have demonstrated inadequate expertise on the full range of issues the next president will have to face.

Judgment is another essential quality of presidential leadership in foreign affairs. Two candidates fail the judgment test on the growing Iranian challenge to American interests in the Gulf. Santorum’s shoot-from-the-hip threat to clobber Iran with a military strike is overly simplistic and aggressive. Some of Nixon’s craftiness and Bush 41’s multilateral instincts would work better in convincing the rest of the world to join us before we rush toward another Mideast war.

On the other hand, Paul’s naïve disregard of Iran’s nuclear build-up amounts to appeasement when a more traditionally tough American attitude is required. Gingrich also fails the judgment test with his cynical and inaccurate assertion that Palestinians are “an invented people’’ and “terrorists.’’ He would start his presidency with two strikes against him in the critical Arab and Muslim worlds.

That leaves two candidates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who alone combine the global IQ, reliable judgment, and international experience required for any 21st-century American president. Both have lived overseas, speak foreign languages, and understand the nuances that are often the key to deciphering other cultures. Huntsman has proven time and again that he is the single most knowledgeable and astute observer of the international scene. Should he not win the nomination, he would be among the best qualified Republicans to be secretary of state.

Romney has articulated a sound global strategy on the campaign trail. His oft overlooked international experience in saving the Salt Lake Olympics and the care he has taken to assemble an impressive and experienced national security advisory team is an early indication of competence as a foreign policy president.

Both have lived overseas and speak foreign languages.

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Crucially, Romney and Huntsman both also have the temperament and experience as former governors to lead the vast national security bureaucracy. Their essential pragmatism in foreign affairs has the further advantage of making them more attractive to independents and the broader spectrum of voters in the general election.

The Republican nominee will have two steep challenges in taking on Obama in foreign policy. First, Republicans cannot rely on their customary tactic of painting Democrats as soft on national security. Romney and Huntsman will have difficulty in running to the right of Obama on international issues when he has acted so forcefully in killing Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and taking the fight to al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border. His decision to withdraw from Iraq may not have pleased many Republicans, but is in step with the American people after a long decade of war.

Second, the nominee will need to somehow reconcile the Republican party’s deep division between a mainstream Romney-Huntsman-Gingrich faction that supports a continued active global American leadership role versus the Tea Party’s isolationist core.

Republicans would be well-advised to find a way to forge a united front on the critical task of restoring American economic power and credibility in the world at a time when so many of our jobs depend on exports and China is challenging us for global leadership. How best to keep America strong, vigorous, engaged internationally, and, indeed, exceptional is a central issue for both parties to consider. In Romney and Huntsman, Republicans have the luxury of two candidates with the global smarts to jump-start this debate in the primaries and make it a central feature of the general election.

Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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