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SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The Republican presidential candidates channeled their criticisms last night toward President Obama over such issues as a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, but their debate on international affairs revealed clear divisions on the elimination of foreign aid and the use of waterboarding to extract information from terrorist suspects.

Days after the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report saying it had credible information that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, the candidates agreed the dilemma would be the most important foreign policy decision they would face if elected. Nearly all of them said they supported tough sanctions and aid to opposition groups. But they disagreed on the use of military force.


Mitt Romney, who refrained from criticizing his rivals while emphatically declaring that the Obama administration had been a disaster for America’s relations with the rest of the world, said he would order “crippling sanctions’’ against the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Romney, however, said he would not take the threat of war off the table.

“If all else fails, if after all of the work we’ve done, there’s nothing else we can do beside take military action, then of course you take military action,’’ he said. “It is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.’’

Newt Gingrich said he would “maximize covert operations’’ to make sure the United States was “taking out their scientists and breaking up their systems.’’

“All of it covert, all of it deniable,’’ he said.

For Gingrich, the debate was an opportunity to build on a sense of momentum in his campaign after stumbling out of the gates this summer. The former House speaker, who holds a doctorate in European history, appeared at ease discussing US military efforts in Afghanistan, the use of foreign aid, and an Iran that appears to be seeking a nuclear weapon.


Representative Ron Paul and businessman Herman Cain balked at the use of military action against Iran.

Cain said he would put economic pressure on Iran by developing US energy independence, increasing sanctions, and helping opposition movements. But, he added, “I would not entertain military opposition.’’

The strongest line in favor of force came from former Senator Rick Santorum, who said there is not enough time left for sanctions or aid to opposition groups.

“We should be working with Israel right now to do what they did in Syria, what they did in Iraq, which is take out that nuclear capability before the next explosion we hear in Iran is a nuclear one, and then the world changes,’’ Santorum said.

As they focused on a range of complex foreign policies that have received scant attention during a campaign focused more on economic concerns, some of the candidates sounded hesitant and tentative. At times, they tried to show that they had done their homework on military and global issues. Cain, who has no foreign policy experience, mentioned using Aegis warships to pressure Iran.

Rick Perry made it through the debate without a major stumble - an accomplishment after a series of faltering performances sapped his support and made him an object of late-night television jokes. In the last debate three days ago, he stammered for nearly a minute as he tried to recall the three federal departments he wants to abolish. He could come up with only two - education and commerce. (The third was energy.)


Last night, he poked fun at himself for the gaffe. When Scott Pelley, of CBS News, mentioned Perry’s call to eliminate the Energy Department, Perry interjected: “Glad you remembered it.’’

“I’ve had some time to think about it, sir,’’ Pelley said.

“Me, too,’’ Perry replied, prompting laughter.

Mostly, the debate, sponsored by CBS News and National Journal, was a sober, civil exploration of the candidates’ world views.

One of the most spirited exchanges involved whether waterboarding - in which a suspect is subjected to a process that simulates drowning - is torture or an acceptable technique. Most Western nations and the Obama administration consider the method torture and criticized its use under the Bush administration.

In response to a question from a Vietnam veteran, Cain, Perry, and Bachmann all said they would be willing to use waterboarding.

“I would return to that policy,’’ Cain said. “I don’t see it as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.’’

Bachmann said it was “very effective’’ in getting information from terrorist suspects.

Perry, citing his Air Force experience, also supported waterboarding. He said the military must use “any technique they can’’ to get information from prisoners that could save the lives of soldiers.

“I’m for using techniques - not torture - that we know will extract information to save young American lives, and I will be for it until I die,’’ Perry said.

Paul, however, strongly objected to the use of waterboarding, calling it illegal under international law.


“It’s also immoral, impractical, and there’s no evidence you get reliable information,’’ said the libertarian-leaning congressman.

Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, concurred. “We diminish our standing in the world, the values we project - liberty, democracy, human rights, open markets when we torture,’’ he said.

Perry ignited a discussion about the use of foreign aid, contending he would give no money to a country until its officials can prove it is a worthy investment.

“The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country will start at zero dollars,’’ he said. “Zero dollars. And then we’ll have a conversation.’’

Later, when he was asked if that included abolishing all aid to Israel and other traditional allies, Perry said: “Israel’s a special ally, and my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level.’’ But he insisted that this aid, too, would start at zero funding.

Bachmann and Santorum expressed staunch support for foreign aid, particularly to Pakistan, saying the country must remain an ally since it has a nuclear weapon.

The candidates generally refrained from jabbing at one another. Gingrich refused to explain why, on Friday, he had dismissed Romney with faint praise, calling him “a good manager’’ but not a serious change agent. “Yesterday, I was on a national radio show,’’ Gingrich said.

“We’re here tonight talking about how every one of us is better than President Obama,’’ he said, adding that Romney is “a friend who’s a great businessman’’ and would be “a great improvement over Obama.’’


The debate, the 10th of the primary season, was held at Wofford College in South Carolina, a state with a large military presence.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com