Paul Wolfowitz threw down the gauntlet at Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate.
A deputy defense secretary in the Bush administration, Wolfowitz is best known (and widely reviled on the left) for his role as an architect of the Iraq War. But Wolfowitz’s question — one of several posed from the floor by representatives of conservative think tanks at the foreign policy- and national security-themed debate — was not about the Middle East. Instead, it was focused on Africa.
Under George W. Bush, who was a conservative Republican, the United States spent billions of dollars to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa and elsewhere and set up the Millennium Challenge Corporation to encourage governments of poor countries to pursue policies that promote economic growth and job creation. Do you believe those are still wise expenditures or do you think that we can no longer afford them?
The subtext of Wolfowitz’s question seemed to be a rebuke to the Republican field’s coolness toward foreign aid.
At a previous debate, Rick Perry vowed to start every country’s foreign aid allotment at zero each year and insist that any aid amount be justified before being allotted — a proposal that was immediately embraced by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that borrowed money today.
The Republican candidates’ bearishness on foreign aid has caused some unease in the Jewish community (particularly in response to the “start at zero” proposal, which, Perry said, should include Israel as well).
The Jewish community has traditionally been strongly supportive of U.S. foreign aid. This support is rooted first in a strong sense of moral obligation. More parochially, in the pro-Israel community, there is the belief that U.S. assistance to Israel is easier to defend when there is broad-based support for foreign aid in general.
Jewish support for foreign aid spans the political spectrum — from liberals to neoconservatives like Wolfowitz who are ardent believers in America’s responsibility to spread its value abroad.
Wolfowitz’s question appeared aimed at getting the candidates to walk back some of their previously expressed skepticism toward foreign aid. (After all, who wants to object to a Republican administration’s widely hailed efforts to combat AIDS and malaria on a poverty-ravaged continent?) However, the question did not end up eliciting much of a response from the top-tier candidates.
Rick Santorum — who has been stuck at around 2 percent in the national polls — led off by repudiating his rivals’ “start at zero” proposal and then launching into a rousing defense of foreign aid as a tool for promoting American values and interests (a response that was marred by his reference to Africa as “a country”).
Herman Cain followed up by essentially saying he needs more information in order to answer the question (a tack he previously took on another foreign policy question, though not to his benefit).
Ron Paul was direct enough: He reiterated his blanket opposition to foreign aid.
By the time Romney jumped back into the debate, the discussion’s connection to Wolfowitz’s original question had been lost. After quarreling with Paul about budgetary matters, the former Massachusetts governor took the opportunity to attack President Obama as soft on Iran and vowed to make Israel his first overseas destination as president.
With the exception of Santorum, the candidates left Wolfowitz’s query unanswered. Also left unanswered was the larger question of how Republican presidential hopefuls’ appeals to Tea Partiers and deficit hawks will sit with neoconservatives and others in the party who believe deeply in foreign aid.