WASHINGTON – Republican presidential candidates criticized US President Barack Obama’s treatment of Israel during a debate in South Carolina Monday night ahead of a crucial GOP primary vote there this weekend.

“Our president has a foreign policy that makes our allies very nervous and emboldens our enemies,” said Texas Governor Rick Perry. “There should be no space between the United States and Israel, period.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum also slammed Obama’s policy toward Syria for endangering Israel.

“We should be much more aggressive in following through with policies that effectuate the removal of [President Bashar] Assad for the benefit of the Syrian people and for... their neighbor, Israel,” Santorum said, though he added that he was not supporting unilateral US military action.

Both Santorum and Perry are battling it out for the support of the state’s staunchest conservatives, as front-runner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has had trouble attracting this key Republican constituency in large numbers.

But Romney, who won both of the first two votes in the primary process, is leading by substantial numbers in the polls and a win for him in South Carolina would make it very difficult for a challenger to get the Republican nomination.

During the debate, Romney criticized Obama on foreign policy as well, particularly for being willing to negotiate with the Taliban, and he also lashed out at Republican competitor Ron Paul, a Texas representative, for not taking a hard enough line against the Afghan fundamentalist group and supporting cuts to military funding while America is at war in central Asia.

“The right way, Congressman Paul, in my view, to keep us from having to go to those wars is to have a military so strong that no one would ever think of testing it. That’s the kind of military we have to have, and we have to pursue our interests around the world,” he said.

Paul for his part received some applause when he spoke about the need to end the war in Afghanistan, but the audience booed when he suggested that, “If another country does to us what we do to others, we’re not going to like it very much. So I would say that maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy. Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want to have them do to us.

“This idea that we can’t debate foreign policy, then all we have to do is start another war? I mean, it’s warmongering. They’re building up for another war against Iran, and people can’t wait to get in another war. This country doesn’t need another war.”

Though Perry didn’t enunciate precisely how he would handle Iran, in contrast to Paul he called for stronger US action. “We need to send a powerful message to countries like Iran and Syria and Turkey, that the United States is serious and that we’re going to have to be dealt with.”

Asked about Turkey’s role in NATO, Perry described the current government as ruled by “what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists” and argued that the US should starkly change its policy toward Ankara.

“Not only is it time for us to have a conversation about whether or not they belong to be in NATO, but it’s time for the United States, when we look at their foreign aid, to go to zero with it.”


For all the Republican attacks on Obama’s foreign policy at the debate and throughout the primary campaigns, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg argued that GOP candidates and their supporters shouldn’t assume the party will automatically score against the Democratic leader on the issue.

Greenberg said Americans’ approval of Obama’s performance jumped by as much as 10 percent in some polls when asked about his handling of foreign policy. “There’s a comfort level with the way he’s dealt with these issues,” Greenberg told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Tuesday, referring to moves like killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes and withdrawing US soldiers from Iraq.

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