How do Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich view Pakistan, a country mentioned a staggering 55 times in Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina?
As on most issues, Gingrich came across as the more pugnacious of the two. He pointed out early on that Pakistan offers sanctuary to anti-U.S. Taliban fighters. He criticized Islamabad for having “hid Bin Laden for at least six years in a military city within a mile of their national defense university.” He pulled no punches on the question of continued U.S. aid: “I think that’s a pretty good idea to start at zero and sometimes stay there.”
If Gingrich’s red meat responses seemed designed to appeal to the gallery, then Romney’s appeared better tailored for policy wonks. To begin with, the former Massachusetts governor showed greater familiarity with detail. “Pakistan is not a country like other countries, with a strong political center,” he said. “This is, instead, a nation which is close to being a failed state.”
Romney pointed out that Pakistan houses competing power centers and that the United States ought to “work with our friends in that country to get them to do some of the things we can’t do ourselves.” He would continue the current policy of going after militants on Pakistani soil with drone strikes, but balked at the idea of using ground troops. Even talking about it in a debate would be “highly incendiary.”
At the same time, Romney tried to strike a muscular note. “One of the things we have to do is have understanding with the various power bases within the country that they’re gonna have to allow us, or they themselves go after the Taliban and Haqqani network to make sure they do not destabilize Afghanistan, particularly as we’re pulling our troops out.”
Interestingly enough, these contrasting approaches cleave closely to how Americans view Pakistan. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll released last month, 40 percent of Americans view Pakistan as an enemy while a nearly identical 39 percent see it as somewhere in between an enemy and an ally. My hunch: we’ll see more of the Gingrich/Romney contrast when Pakistan likely comes up again at the November 22 AEI/Heritage national security debate on CNN.