WASHINGTON -- At the Republican debate on foreign policy Saturday night, the party's candidates for president delivered a series of strong rebukes to the leadership of President Obama and offered a rare glimpse into their international outlooks, while also reopening the national debate on the suitability of torture.
"We're here tonight talking to the American people about why every single one of us is better than Barack Obama, and that's something everyone here can agree with," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said at the height of a debate that was high on technicalities and low on the kind of barbs and gaffes that have come to define many of the candidates' previous engagements.
Foreign policy has not been a popular topic in this campaign to date. Obama's approval rating on his handling of international affairs is unusually high, and with major international successes under his belt, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the subject has hardly proven a ripe ground for Republican criticism.
Few of the candidates have substantive international experience, and to some extent the debate Saturday night was an exercise in damage control and a chance to demonstrate a basic understanding of the facts and principles concerning American interests abroad.
In this regard, few had more to prove than Herman Cain, who has run a close second in most polls but continues to be dogged by the perception that he has an underwhelming interest in national security matters. Throughout the evening, Cain acquitted himself well, delivering a nuanced perspective on the threat posed by Iran -- and avoiding major gaffes.
But Cain also provided one of the most striking moments when he argued in favor of the use of "enhanced interrogation" -- including the now-rejected technique of waterboarding -- in the fight against terrorism, a proposal that is likely to outrage many who thought the era of American-sponsored torture was over.
Attempting to parse his answer by suggesting that he did "not agree with torture, period," but instead supported "enhanced interrogation," Cain said he would rely on the military to decide which techniques were acceptable.
"I will trust the judgment of our military to determine what is torture and what is not torture," Cain said. Asked about waterboarding in particular, he replied, "I would return to that policy. I don't see it as torture, I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique."
Both Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Governor Rick Perry agreed with Cain, with Perry drawing sustained applause when declared, "This is war." Of the use of waterboarding and other techniques, he added, "I will defend them until I die."
The use of waterboarding was discontinued late in the administration of President George W. Bush, and top officials later conceded that waterboarding in particular was illegal.
But in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, several Bush administration officials have launched an effort to resurrect the technique, or at least salvage its reputation, by suggesting that information acquired during the earlier waterboarding years may have provided an essential clue to locating bin Laden.
Only Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who used the foreign policy debate to bolster his image as the experienced statesman of the current crop of Republican candidates, challenged the logic of the brutal tactic.
"We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture," Huntsman said. "Waterboarding is torture. We shouldn't torture."
So far this year, the Republicans have spent more time avoiding the subject of foreign policy than deliberating it, in no small part because voters say they are much more likely to consider jobs and the economy when they select their next president.
Indeed, in a sign of the topic's low priority, CBS, the co-sponsor of the debate with National Journal magazine, opted to broadcast only the first hour on national television. The last half-hour of the debate was streamed online, while the network returned to its regular programming, which for many was a rerun of the hit crime show "NCIS."
But early in the debate, the candidates managed to latch on to one potential topic of vulnerability for President Obama: Iran.
A report out this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency unveiled new evidence that Iran has been attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program, and the candidates found rare agreement in their assertions that Obama had mishandled the situation there.
"This is of course President Obama's greatest failing from a foreign standpoint," said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. "He recognized the gravest threat that America and the world faces was a nuclear Iran, and he didn't do what was necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly."
Saying the president should have supported dissidents more and put in place more "crippling sanctions," Romney concluded, "If all else fails, if after all of the work we've done, there's nothing else we can do except military action, then of course you take military action."
Cain, for his part, stopped short of supporting military action, although he said he would back much stronger sanctions than those President Obama has committed to.
"I would not entertain military opposition," he said. "I'm talking about helping the opposition within the country."
"The answers you just got are superior to the current administration," Gingrich said. "There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb, and the administration has skipped all the ways to be smart."
Former Pennsylvania Representative Rick Santorum took the strongest stance on Iran, proposing that the U.S. support an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities "before the next explosion in Iran is a nuclear one, and the world changes."
Meanwhile, in his first debate appearance since he badly stumbled over the names of which government agencies he would want to cut, Perry deftly mocked himself for the gaffe, but also waded into an awkward situation when he seemed to propose that the U.S. cut all foreign aid to Israel.
During a discussion of Pakistan, Perry proposed that the U.S. temporarily reduce all foreign aid "to zero," before re-evaluating whether to commit funds on a case-by-case basis. Perry was then asked if this proposition included Israel.
"Obviously Israel is a special ally, and my guess is we would be funding them at a high level," Perry responded, "but everyone should come in at zero."
Even before the debate was over, Perry's official Twitter account began doing limited damage control, tweeting "Perry is a friend to Israel, understands challenges faced by the country," along with a link to Perry's position statement on Israel.
Romney initially said during the debate that he supported Perry's idea of starting all foreign aid at zero, but has now walked back the implication that he would include Israel in that calculation.
"Governor Romney was talking about Pakistan when he said the foreign aid each year should start at zero," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams told Politico's Ben Smith. He added that he did not believe that Israel should see their foreign aid reduced to a starting point of zero.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more