Alex Della Rocchetta
Foreign policy and national security will take center stage tonight as Republican presidential hopefuls tackle questions from American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation scholars live on CNN.
"The candidates will have the opportunity to tell us how they see America’s role on the global stage — in promoting security, in standing by our allies, and in advancing freedom, opportunity and enterprise around the world," said AEI President Arthur Brooks.
"In short, the debate will help show the American people those candidates who are ready to be commander in chief and those who are not," Brooks added.
The debate comes at a critical time for international affairs and defense issues, though the campaign conversation has been dominated by economic and job concerns.
"There's probably no moment since the end of the Cold War that the world has been as dangerous to U.S. interests," said AEI Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies Danielle Pletka. "There's a disaster in the Eurozone, revolution throughout the Arab world, an increasingly belligerent Russia, a rising and dangerous China and an Iran that's soon to have nuclear weapons.
"Meanwhile, with radical defense cuts and a president who seeks to manage U.S. decline, we have never been less prepared to confront the challenges," Pletka said.
“It’s not hard to understand why some people are saying that the U.S. can no longer afford to play a leadership role in the world," said AEI Visiting Scholar Paul Wolfowitz. "The problem is that we also can’t afford the consequences of a world without American leadership. So the big question is, what is an appropriate leadership role for the United States and how can we make that affordable?”
"What is an appropriate leadership role for the United States and how can we make that affordable?" Co-hosting a national campaign debate is a first for AEI. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, businessman Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are scheduled to appear before a packed house of about 3,000 at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer will moderate the 90-minute debate, which begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time. It will air nationally on CNN and CNN en Español and worldwide on CNN International, CNN Radio and CNN.com.
Standing at podiums onstage, the candidates will face a special zone populated with scholars and staff from AEI and co-host Heritage. Within these 80 seats will be 30 to 40 experts in foreign and defense policy. All will be ready to pose a question to the White House hopefuls; as many as 10 from each think tank will be called on to ask those questions.
"The candidates onstage tonight are not just running for president of the United States – they are also running for leader of the free world," said AEI Visiting Fellow Marc Thiessen. "While it is clear that jobs and the economy will drive the 2012 election, voters still want to know that the GOP nominee has thought deeply about the critical national security questions they may face as the next commander in chief."
Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow and director of AEI’s Center for Defense Studies, stressed that the candidates' positions on defense issues will have profound impact beyond America's borders.
"American 'decline' may be a choice, but continuing cuts to American defense spending will make our decline inevitable, and the world inevitably more dangerous," Donnelly said. "A more dangerous world will also be a less prosperous world, as peaceful economic competition gives way to geopolitical conflict or war."
Wolfowitz, who served as deputy secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, said the "historic upheaval" throughout the Arab world could have a significant impact on American security and prosperity.
"Countries and groups with very different interests from ours are working actively to shape events in that world, yet the U.S. seems happy to cede the leadership role to others," he said.
Michael Rubin, an AEI resident scholar specializing in the Middle East, noted that voters won't be the only ones paying rapt attention to the candidates' debate responses.
"From the jungles of Venezuela to the bazaars of Iran, and from the battle-scarred streets of Syria to the communist party headquarters of China and North Korea, our enemies will be listening as well," Rubin said. "It’s important that candidates recognize the reverberations of their statements here tonight."
Tonight's conversation comes at a time when polling shows a wide majority of U.S. voters preferring to focus on problems at home instead of crises abroad.
"Most presidents face crises and conflicts they never anticipated before taking office – from the Persian Gulf war, to the Kosovo war, the 9/11 attacks and Libya," Thiessen said. "History has a way of intruding on the best laid plans of presidents, and we need to know which of the candidates will be best positioned to answer the call of history when it comes."
"If there’s one lesson candidates must take in this post-9/11 world," added Rubin, "it’s that the nuances of foreign policy can no longer be an afterthought."
- Join AEI scholar Gary Schmitt, director of Advanced Strategic Studies, for a live chat during the debate. Ask your questions and comment.
- Join other AEI fans and discuss at the Facebook debate-watching event.
- Be part of the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #CNNdebate.
Bridget Johnson is managing editor of AEI.org