'Gingrich, Huntsman dovetail'

Last modified: 12/13/2011 12:00:00 AM
At a foreign policy debate at Saint Anselm College yesterday, Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich reiterated their commitment to Israel, identified the U.S. relationship between China as the most important of the 21st century and bemoaned the nation's strained relationship with Pakistan.

Although the goal of the event, billed as a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, was for the candidates to discuss 10 foreign policy and defense topics, including Iran, the European debt crisis, the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border and Russia, lax timekeeping meant only about half the intended topics were addressed.

There was little, if anything, the two presidential candidates disagreed on during the forum. And so it was in style, not substance, that that they distinguished themselves in what Gingrich called a "sophisticated" and "candid" discussion.

When Gingrich, a former history professor, raised the topic of Iran, which both he and Huntsman identified as the most serious threat to the United States in the next decade, he sounded like he could have been speaking in one of the college's seminar rooms.

"I want all of you to think about how serious this is," he told the audience, which was comprised of adults and students alike.

"A movement which recruits its own children to learn how to be suicide bombers . . . to blow themselves up in order to kill you is a movement that, with nuclear weapons, would use them in a heartbeat because there's no effective deterrent."

To prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Gingrich said he would advocate "regime change."

"If you're determined that they not have nuclear weapons, I believe you have to be ultimately for regime change, because there's no practical scenario in which you can take out their weapons systems without them rebuilding them."

If Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, Gingrich argued that the people of Israel could suffer a second Holocaust.

Huntsman agreed all options should be "on the table" to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons because it would further motivate nations like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to acquire them as well, lest they lose influence in the region.

Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, spoke of that nation's changing demographics, slowing economic growth and upcoming transfer of power. These changes, he said, pose a great opportunity for a better economic and diplomatic relationship between the two nations.

He even spoke some Chinese.

He also identified Pakistan as a nation on the verge of collapse. Should that happen, "the turmoil in south Asia would be imponderable," Huntsman said, in part because of the growing young population, military government and rising madrassa movement there.

As a hedge, the U.S. should be cultivating an even stronger relationship with Pakistan's neighbor, India.

"The relationship with India is a prime example of a relationship that is waiting to broaden and expand its economic, military intelligence, links with the United States," Huntsman said.

"They share our values, and I think that's an important thing to recognize."

Huntsman was more explicit in his goal to wind down the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan than Gingrich was.

"I believe it's time for us to come home," said Huntsman, who also argued the U.S. needs an even stronger special forces operation to work in counter-terrorism.

Both said the U.S. needs to improve its own intelligence gathering so it can rely less on foreign intelligence.

Both were critical of President Obama's foreign policy, in part for supporting the rebels in Libya when it remains unclear if they will be friendly or hostile to the U.S.

The audience was prohibited from applauding except at the very beginning and very end of the debate, and Huntsman even chided his supporters when they cheered for him. The subdued audience became a point of self-deprecating humor for both men.

"Well I can see my daughter nodding off over there, which means I've already gone on too long anyway," Huntsman said, referring to his daughter Gracie Mei.

"In her defense, she was nodding off while I spoke," Gingrich said.

For Gingrich, the debate was just one of six public events yesterday in New Hampshire, where he continues to nip at the heels of the frontrunner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

At Dyn, a Manchester firm that helps companies with a range of internet services, Gingrich took questions on topics including health care costs, student loan debt and financial regulation.

After the event, Cory Von Wallenstein, vice president of engineering at Dyn, said he was considering throwing his support from Romney to Gingrich.

"He got my attention," he said. "And he didn't have it before."

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)

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