For the first six months of the GOP presidential race, the candidates focused almost entirely on the economy. But as the campaign enters primary-election crunch time, those vying to be the next Commander-in-Chief have begun changing their tune to foreign policy.
Here's a look at where the top eight candidates come down on the United States's involvment in the Middle East.
Romney: Mitt Romney supports taking military action to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He criticized Obama's handling of the Twitter Revolution, saying, "What he should have done is speak out when dissidents took the streets and say, 'America is with you.' And work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents."
Gingrich: At the CBS/National Journal debate Newt Gingrich said the United States should assassinate Iran's nuclear scientists, "all of it covertly, all of it deniable. " He also said he supports using "every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down," adding "If, in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists, you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon."
Cain: While Herman Cain said at Saturday's debate that he "would not entertain military opposition" to prevent Iran from become a nuclear-capable nation, the former Godfather's CEO said in October that he would upgrade America's missile-defense system, load those missile defenses on naval ships, strategically position the ships and then tell Iranian President Ahmadinejad to "make my day."
Perry: In an interview with ABC's Christiane Amanpour in early November, Rick Perry said Obama missed an opportunity to overthrow the Iranian regime because he did not provide enough aid to the protestors. Perry said he would use "diplomatic and economic and overt, covert or even civic opportunities to overthrow this oppressive regime." As for possible military strikes on Iran, Perry told CNN that if Israel used force, "We will support Israel in every way that we can, whether it's diplomatic, whether it's economic sanctions, whether it's overt or covert operations - up to and including military action."
Paul: Ron Paul's approach to dealing with Iran is almost a polar opposite to the other candidates. In an interview with Fox News Sunday in early November, Paul said the U.S. should not put sanctions on Iran and instead seek to exert influence over the regime by "offering friendship to them." "For them to be a threat to us or anybody in the region, I think is just blown out of proportion," Paul said. "People are just anxious to use violence against Iranians. I think it would undermine our security and would be very destructive to Israel because it would just blow that place up."
Bachmann: Michele Bachmann has taken one of the most hawkish approaches to Iran, saying the "Pentagon should prepare a war plan, as a last resort" to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapon. Bachmann said she supports a naval blockade of Iranian ports and "crushing economic sanctions." As president, she said she would use "every military option" to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran.
Huntsman: While Jon Huntsman has been rather dove-ish when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, he has taken a hard line against Iran. "I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that," he said in his October foreign policy speech.
Santorum: This week Rick Santorum became the only candidate to release a comprehensive "plan to stop Iranian nuclear aggression," which states that America should label Iranian nuclear scientists "enemy combatant[s]," freeze Iranian officials' bank accounts and revoke their visas, sanction Iran's central bank, and open domestic energy production with the goal of "effectively devastating Iran's only economy." Santorum said he would call for a "preemptive strike" if it is proven that Iran is building nuclear weapons.
Romney: At a New Hampshire campaign stop in October, Romney said Pakistan needs to clarify if it is going to be "with us or with them" and if it chooses "them," Romney said the country will have "a very significant consequence." Romney said he supports the U.S. exacting unmanned drone attacks within Pakistan, but said at Saturday's debate that he would not call for troops to be deployed to the country. "Announcing on a stage like this that as president we would throw U.S. troops into Pakistan could be highly incendiary in a setting like that."
Gingrich: Echoing Perry's plan to start every country at "zero" dollars of foreign aid, Gingrich said he would consider eliminating all U.S. aid to Pakistan. "The Pakistanis hid Bin Laden for at least six years in a military city within a mile of their national defense university," he said at the most recent debate. "We think those are the acts of allies? I think that's a pretty good reason to start at zero and sometimes stay there."
Cain: When asked at the CBS/National Journal foreign policy debate if Pakistan was a "friend or foe," Cain once again punted the question to "commanders" and generals on the ground. "I would ask them what commitments is Pakisan willing to make to assure the United States of America that they are a friend or a foe." As of now, Cain said "We don't know, because Pakistan is not clear. There is a lot of clarity missing … in this whole region."
Perry: Perry had no hesitation in condemning Pakistan, saying at the debate, "I don't trust them." Perry said he would cut foreign aid to Pakistan. "Pakistan is clearly sending us messages that they don't deserve our foreign aid that we are giving them because they are not being honest with us," he said. "American soldiers' lives are being put in jeopardy because of that country. It is time for us as a country to say 'no' to foreign aid to countries that do not support America."
Paul: Just as he does not support military involvement in Afghanistan or Libya, Paul said he does not support any use of force in Pakistan, including drone strikes. "We are more or less inciting a civil war there," Paul said on Nov. 7 on Fox News Sunday. "I think that makes us less safe. For every one you kill there, you probably create 10 new people who hate our guts and would like to do us harm."
Bachmann: Unlike Perry and Gingrich, Bachmann said she would not eliminate foreign aid to Pakistan. "I would reduce foreign aid to many, many countries, but there's a problem because Pakistan has a nuclear weapon," Bachmann said. She stressed that U.S.-Pakistan relations are an "extremely important issue" because of the country's nuclear capabilities. "Pakistan is a very difficult area because they have been housing terrorists and terrorists have been training there," she said at the debate. While she did not offer her own strategy for dealing with the country, she criticized the tack Obama has taken. "It seems that the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel," she said. "And if there's anything that we know, President Obama has been more than willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street but he hasn't been willing to stand with Israel."
Huntsman: The former ambassador to China said aid to Pakistan is "terribly problematic." "I'm not in favor of 400 billion dollars, particularly the money that winds up in the hip pockets of General Kiyani and his crowd," Huntsman said, stressing that "because of their precarious state of affairs, we have got to have an ongoing relationship with Pakistan that allows them to move in a direction of stability." The former Utah governor said he supports the U.S. giving aid to Pakistan, but that the money should be "something that is tied to reform, something that is tied to stability, something that is tied to steps toward expanding the marketplace."
Santorum: Because of Pakistan's nuclear capabilities, Santorum said it "must be a friend of the United States." Rather than cutting the country off, Santorum said America should "engage them as friends" because "there are people within that country where if they gain control of that country will create a situation equal to the situation that is now percolating in Iran."
Romney: At a GOP primary debate in June, Romney said that it is "time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, as soon as our generals think it's O.K." He has said he supports removing all combat troops by the end of 2014 and reducing troop levels to pre-surge numbers by December 2012. Romney said at Saturday's South Carolina foreign policy debate that "it is a mistake" for President Obama to withdraw the 33,000 "surge" troops that were deployed in 2009, adding, "Our commanders said that puts our troops at danger."
Gingrich: Similar to Romney, Gingrich said in July that he would withdraw troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan "as rapidly as the generals think is safe." Instead of having combat troops on the ground, the former speaker of the House said he would "go to a much different style of using covert operations and using diplomatic and economic pressures."
Cain: Cain said he would defer to his military commanders when determining when and how to withdraw from Afghanistan. "One of the things I've always prided myself on is making an informed decision based upon knowing all of the facts, and at this point I don't know all of the facts, but that is the process I would use," he said at a Fox debate in May.
Perry: Perry does not support Obama's troop withdrawal timetable. "The idea that we would give a timetable to our enemy is irresponsible from a military standpoint, it's irresponsible from the lives of our young men and women, and it is irresponsible leadership from this president to give a timetable to pull out of any country that we are in conflict with," he said at Saturday's debate.
Paul: Paul has been staunchly opposed to the war in Afghanistan. Paul supports bringing all combat troops home from not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but from America's bases around the world. "We need to have a significant change in foreign policy, which means that all the troops come home and turn that country back over to the Afghans and let them deal with it," Paul said on ABC's Top Line in June. "We'll have less danger to us if we don't occupy foreign countries, because that's the top motivation for the desire to come here and kill Americans — is because we've invaded their land."
Bachmann: Bachmann said at Saturday's foreign policy debate that Obama's rapid timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is a "fatal decision." Following the president's draw-down announcement, Bachmann issued a statement accusing Obama of playing politics. "Announced deadlines for withdrawing forces from any battle enables the enemy to simply wait until we leave to reconstitute itself," she wrote. "By undercutting our security objectives in Afghanistan with ill-advised timelines and accelerated troops withdrawals, President Obama apparently listened to his political consultants rather than his military commanders."
Huntsman: Besides Paul, Huntsman is the only GOP presidential hopeful that supports an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. "I say it's time to come home," Huntsman said at the CBS/National Journal debate. "I say this nation has achieved its key objectives in Afghanistan. We've had free elections in 2004. We've uprooted the Tailban; we dismantled Al Qaeda; we've killed Osama bin Laden."
Santorum: Santorum does not support Obama's time table for withdrawing the troops and instead favors military involvement until a clear victory is achieved in Afghanistan. "Victory against the Taliban and Afghanistan is that the Taliban is a neutered force, they are no longer a security threat to the Afghan people or to our country," Santorum said at Saturday's debate.
Romney: Romney's position on the U.S.'s use of force in Libya is a bit foggy. Initially he criticized Obama for waiting too long to get militarily involved in Libya, then for being too hasty in authorizing a no-fly zone. The former Massachusetts governor first questioned whether removing Gadhafi was a good idea: "Who's going to own Libya if we get rid of the government there?" He then praised Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's death, saying, "The world is a better place without Moammar Ghadafi."
Gingrich: In early March, as rebel forces geared up for what looked like a bloody flight against Gadhafi, Gingrich said that if he were president, he would "exercise a no-fly zone this evening." But three weeks later, after Obama authorized such a no-fly zone, Gingrich said the president's decision was "amateur opportunism." Seeking to clarify his seemingly contradictory remarks, Gingrich posted a Facebook message saying that Obama's declaration that Gadhafi must go changed everything and committed the U.S. to "support the mission and see it through."
Cain: In what was perhaps the worst, or second-worst, stumble of the GOP presidential race to date, Cain struggled to answer a question about whether he supported Obama's actions in Libya during an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board. After asking the board multiple times for clarification, taking lengthy pauses and saying he has "got all this stuff twirling around in my head," Cain finally said he would have "gone about assessing the situation differently, which might have caused us to end up in the same place."
Perry: Perry supported U.S. involvement in Libya. After Gadhafi's death, the Texas governor said that the U.S. should "take an active role" during the Libyan transition to democracy in order to prevent "any remaining stockpiles of Gadhafi's weapons" from falling into the wrong hands. "These weapons pose a real danger to the United States and our allies, and we cannot help secure them through simple observation," Perry said.
Paul: Paul did not support military intervention to help the rebels oust Gadhafi. He even signed onto a lawsuit with nine other House members, suing Obama for authorizing military action without Congressional approval. "We have no idea what's going to come out of Libya," Paul said on Fox News Sunday in March. "I'm very skeptical. Nobody even knows who the rebels represent. And there's good evidence that the Al Qaeda is there. So we may be delivering Al Qaeda another prize."
Bachmann: Citing similar reasoning as Paul, Bachmann was also a fierce opponent of using military force in Libya. "We to this day don't yet know who the rebel forces are that we're helping," she said in a June 13 debate, according to the New York Times. "What possible vital American interests could we have to empower Al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya?" After Gadhafi's death, Bachmann reiterated her stance, saying, "Hopefully, today will also bring to an end our military involvement there, something I opposed from its beginning."
Huntsman: In a May interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Huntsman said the U.S. should not intervene in Libya because it was "not core to our national security interest." Huntsman said the U.S. should focus on building up "our own economic core here at home" rather than remaining directly involved with the transition in Libya after Gadhafi was captured and killed.
Santorum: In a June debate Santorum, who supported the U.S. enforcing a no-fly zone, attacked Obama for following behind the United Nations. "We could have been a source for good from the very get-go in Libya, but this president was indecisive and confused from the very beginning," Santorum said. "He only went along with the Libyan mission because the United Nations told him to, which is something that Ronald Reagan would have melted like the Old Wicked Witch of the West before he would have allowed that to happen."